From Alcohol to Zebra fish in the Lakes

Our editor Jon Sutton reports from the annual meeting of the British Psychological Society's Psychobiology Section.

Any conference is about more than the scientific programme. The surroundings, the scheduling, the social side of it in the late-night bar… all contribute to an overall experience that can feel like you’ve left the real world for a few days. But at the very best meetings, something magical happens where the content and context come together, while embracing the everyday. The annual Psychobiology Section event, held in a luxury hotel on the shores of Lake Windermere, is that sort of conference. Could I immerse myself in the talks and come up with a level of understanding that matched the bio to the psycho in order to provide insight into three days like this?

Inevitably, for many, alcohol serves as a lubricant to get the conference conversations flowing. That’s despite warnings from Andy Smith (Cardiff) over the effects of regular binge drinking and hangovers on work efficiency. Philip Murphy (Edge Hill University) found that heavy social drinkers showed a pattern of lower cortical engagement in task performance than either controls or those who drank and used cannabis. You wouldn’t necessarily expect that adding another drug into the mix would have beneficial effects – ‘the results were a surprise’, Murphy admitted – but further research could be warranted on the possible neuroprotective role of cannabinoids. 

The more raucous element from the delegates did seem to adopt some colourful language, but the swearing at a psychobiology conference is on a different level of creativity, largely due to the research of Richard Stephens at Keele. He has assessed the pain relieving qualities of novel ‘swear’ words, such as ‘fouch’ and ‘twizzpipe’ (hence our conference quiz team name, ‘The Fouching Twizzpipes’). Such words were rated as more emotional, and humorous than neutral words, but only actual swear words had an impact on pain threshold and tolerance in a cold pressor task. 

Stephens now wants to look at how swearing gains its ‘power’, usually in childhood. His PhD student Olly Robertson suggested a focus on ‘affect programs’, central mechanisms which direct emotion generation and responses. If we have an emotional experience, such as being socially excluded, the subjective feeling, behavioural and physiological responses are all core components which might be impacted by swearing. Perhaps the mechanisms will remain stubbornly resistant to insight though, with one of Robertson’s participants summing up with ‘Swearing just makes me feel better. I don’t know why… it just does.’

Feeling suitably remorseful for imbibing a little excessively on the very first night, I was reminded of Sarita Robinson’s (University of Central Lancashire) presentation on the psychosocial factors related to hangover severity. It wasn’t level of alcohol intake that predicted how rough participants would feel after indulging – but those with higher levels of shame and guilt reported more severe hangovers. 

Breakfast would sort me out. Greeting me at the cereals was Louise Dye (University of Leeds), probably the nation’s foremost expert on what the first meal of the day does for us. Her keynote was to be a tour de force of applied, multidisciplinary research which runs the whole gamut from biological mechanisms to actually doing something about real problems in an environment of austerity. ‘Psychology shouldn’t be in a vacuum,’ she urged, ‘it should be about changing people’s lives’.  

Whether or not a child gets a decent breakfast, Dye recognises, is dependent on a whole range of factors including socioeconomic status, parental education and attachment, the levels of environmental stress and stimulation, and many more besides. But breakfast is ‘something we can have an impact on’, and the hope is that it is a learned behaviour that can track through to adulthood. The research suggests that just eating something is important for maintaining cognition and performance throughout the morning, but unfortunately, breakfast skipping is rife. Female adolescents are most at risk, and rates are higher in the UK than other countries (except Greece, which is in itself interesting from an austerity perspective). The drop in performance hits those with ‘low cognitive resource’ the most, and Dye’s studies have found that ‘rarely eating breakfast’ on school days lowers the average GCSE qualification by one point in adolescents from low/middle SES backgrounds. 

So Dye is working to get renewed funding for breakfast clubs in schools, as well as researching the ‘clusters’ of wellbeing and behaviour issues that accompany having breakfast or not, including self-harm and feeling unsafe at home. A growing number of children in the UK are living with ‘food insecurity’, Dye warned, unsure where their next meal will come from. ‘We’re right up there with Romania, Bulgaria and Lithuania, and the government isn’t talking about it. The DWP will add 10 questions about food buying and eating habits to its annual Family Resources survey, but the data won’t be reported publicly until 2021.’

Of course, I was fortunate enough to tuck into a full English. Maybe that wasn’t the best choice to keep me mentally fit throughout the day… applying the findings from the conference again, perhaps I should reach for the tree nuts (Philippa Jackson from Northumbria University suggesting that 30g per day could improve performance on a task of episodic memory, if not having the hypothesised effect on logical reasoning). Multivitamins always sound like a good idea, and Fiona Dodd (also Northumbria) gave supplements for four weeks and measured the impact on a 30 minute treadmill run for physically healthy, active adults. Interestingly, there were sex differences, with increased carbohydrate oxidation and energy expenditure in males (in comparison with controls), and less reported mental and physical tiredness in females. 

By the second night at a conference, burning the candle at both ends can take its toll. Sure, we’re not exactly working down the pit… perhaps we can’t even lay claim to having the working conditions of musicians, who Catherine Loveday (University of Westminster) is keen to research. (The pressure to harness creativity on demand, to remain ‘authentic’ while becoming a commercial success, the performance stress, disruption of circadian rhythms… all make this an interesting group from a psychobiological perspective.) But it’s surely not unusual for a bit of cabin fever to creep in at a conference, the odd pang of anxiety… perhaps what you need is ‘coping flexibility’, being able to come at a problem from varying angles. Eimar Lee (Anglia Ruskin University) told us that for participants with greater perceived stress, having greater trait coping flexibility was associated with lower levels of blood pressure following a multitasking stressor task. 

Self-control (considered by Richard Steel from Loughborough) becomes more central as the conference progresses, staying on task and free of intrusional thoughts (Rhiannon Jones, University of Winchester). Still, it could be worse, I could be a zebrafish. They’re apparently pretty anxious, in terms of their exploration of a novel environment, so undergraduate project prize winner James Evans (Queen Mary University of London) has been using them to investigate the relationship between anxiety and healthy ageing. This involves telomeres – specialised caps at the end of eukaryotic chromosomes which protect against the attrition of genetic material. Telomere shortening is a biomarker of cellular ageing, so it can be used as a biomarker of the impact of stress on ageing. Evans found shorter telomeres amongst the more anxious fish, but only in the older subjects – evidence that anxiety may accelerate age-dependent telomere shortening. 

On the final morning, circadian rhythms are all out of whack. I think back to the second excellent keynote, from Stephany Biello (University of Glasgow, pictured above). Sleep is a cycle ‘you can’t resist’, Biello said, and she has become particularly interested in how our body clock seems to breakdown in older age. Clock disruption is an independent risk factor for obesity, diabetes, cancer, depression and more. A mouse model provides Biello with the genetic and pharmacological tools to study this. In older mice (as in humans), activity bleeds out into the wrong part of the cycle more – pulses of light can induce a delay in the cycle, a ‘clock shift’. But older animals don’t reset to pulses of light in the same way as young animals; it takes them longer to resynchronise after a change in the light-dark cycle. Biello’s work suggests this is due to reduced effectiveness of the neurochemicals that are mediating the effects of light on the clock area, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). It’s not that the whole system falls apart, because neuropeptide Y seems to ‘reset as robustly’: serotonin and GABA agonists are the likely culprits. ‘We’ve traced this all the way to the dish, and to the level of a sub-receptor, and then back into the animal.’

Going further, Biello applies this to the real world of assisted living units, the NHS (and the move towards lower levels of light on wards at night), and teenagers. The wavelength of blue light, 450 nanometres, is the ‘sweet spot for the resetting of circadian effects’, but Biello does say the cognitive effects of using phones before bed (Fear Of Missing Out included) are much bigger. Demonstrating real impact, Biello has established Sleep Scotland, a charity with funding from the Scottish Government and NHS, to train hundreds of people in cognitive and behavioural approaches to managing sleep problems. 

Staving off the pre-lunch sleepiness, I listen to one final talk on 2D:4D digit ratio (as a marker of prenatal androgen exposure), adverse childhood experiences and female offending (James Jackson, Leeds Trinity University), before I hop in a taxi to the station. Appropriately enough, I leave Alice Stephenson (University of the West of England) talking about task switching in semi-autonomous vehicles, and her colleague Chris Alford seeking to understand how older people will want to communicate with cars that can drive themselves.  

Safely on the train, I settle down to write this report with one more talk to mention. That was from Michael Smith (Northumbria), on the impact of expressive writing on our mental health and immune biomarkers. Participants with high negative affectivity (definitely not Michael, definitely me) were asked to write for three days, 20 minutes at a time, about ‘the best day’ of their lives. For people who were high in social inhibition, the expressive writing task was really effective in terms of reducing their depression and perceived stress reactivity.  

So I’ve written for 20 minutes about three days of my life. Not necessarily the best – full of happiness, ecstasy, ‘moments of rapture’ – but certainly uncommonly good for a conference. 

- Find coverage and interviews from the past two years' events in our archive. We expect to have more from the two keynote speakers at this year's event in due course. 

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