From the European Congress

This year’s Congress was set against rather different political background, but still colleagues from across Europe gathered together, discussing work across five main themes including migration, resilience and technology. Our journalist Ella Rhodes was there.

A spectacular opening ceremony featuring orange neon clogs, dancing in balloons and foil streamers shot from backpacks kicked off the 15th European Congress of Psychology in Amsterdam – the same location as the first ever such meeting. In her welcoming address Elly Plooij-van Gorsel, President of the Nederlands Instituut van Psychologen (NIP) reminded the gathered audience of the context of the first ECP: ‘The first Congress was held just as the Berlin Wall had fallen. Our East German colleagues came, they couldn’t pay a penny, they were still very welcome.’

Rat-nav
One of the few psychologists to win a Nobel Prize, Professor Edvard Moser, a Director of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience, presented his and colleagues’ fascinating research on the brain systems involved in rodent navigation.

The human brain’s positioning system, which we may have in common with evolutionary ancestors, particularly involves the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex. However, while we are unable to accurately image dynamic processes in the human brain, focusing on other mammals can still reveal much.

Almost 50 years ago John O’Keefe (University College London), who shared the Nobel Prize with Moser and his ex-wife May-Britt Moser, recorded single hippocampal neuron activity in free-roaming rats. Moser showed a video of one of these rats, the electrode recording the neuron’s action potential made a small clicking noise when the neuron fired, it was clear to see and hear specific neurons only firing when the rat was in a certain corner of the room – O’Keefe called these place cells.

But, Moser asked, where and how is this place signal generated? In trying to functionally dissect the rat hippocampus it emerged that the hippocampus alone probably did not create place signals but the entorhinal cortex played a key role.

The individual cells within the rat entorhinal cortex eventually revealed a fascinating pattern. Certain single cells fire at multiple different parts of a room, and when a visual representation of this firing pattern was laid over the room being studied it emerged they fire in a hexagonal grid pattern. The scale of this pattern varies depending on where in the cortex a so-called grid cell is recorded but the grid pattern itself remains rigid and universal.

Moser presented some preliminary data on sleep studies which he and postdoctoral researcher Richard Gardner have carried out on sleeping rats. So far it seems grid cells with similar fields still fire in a correlated pattern during slow-wave sleep, so this grid pattern is maintained even in sleep, including REM.

These grid cells function very differently to place cells, Moser said; if a rat visits 11 rooms place cells will change where they fire in the different rooms, while grid cells maintain the same pattern. This suggests place cells may be part of a memory system for storing distinct maps of different places, while grid cell maps are the same pattern used repeatedly, which is useful in measuring position.

But how might navigation work in practice? Triangulation may be our first guess but Moser said this system is quite inaccurate. It seems more likely that position is calculated from the distance and direction one moves, like an internal pedometer – a system that can even be observed in ants. Researcher Matthias Wittlinger gave ants a track where they had to walk 10 steps away and 10 steps back to get food, but when these ants had tiny stilts attached to their legs they walked further to get the food.

Similarly, if ants are free-roaming and walk towards food along a meandering, non-linear route, on their way back to the original destination they walk in a simpler near-straight line, suggesting they can orient themselves based on the distance and direction travelled. Moser said that much data suggests that grid cells work in a similar way to a GPS system because they rely on rat’s movement to determine its position.

And grid cells aren’t alone in the entorhinal cortex, head direction cells, which fire when a rat is walking in a particular direction, have also been found. The cortex also contains cells that fire when a rat is walking along a border or edge of a box or room – specific to east, west, north or south walls. Speed cells have also been discovered in the entorhinal cortex which have no preferred location or direction but fire at the same speed the animal is moving.

In another preliminary study PhD student Oyvind Hoydal has discovered when a rat’s environment contains an object, specific cells fire when the rat is at a specific distance from that object. The activity in these cells increases as the animal moves closer to the object. A subpopulation of cells also fires when an object or objects lie at certain orientations from the rat. Thus it seems the entorhinal cortex consists of a map of empty space but with cells that can directly encode a rat’s position in relation to objects in the environment.
However, as Moser pointed out, the truly interesting aspect of these cells and systems is how they might work together. As technology becomes more sophisticated, we are reaching a point where it is possible to use minute microscopes to capture the activity within a full section of a mouse’s brain making it a more real possibility to image the entirety of the entorhinal cortex. Watch this ‘space’.


What’s the state of evidence-based practice in European psychology?

Psychology has long grappled with promoting and encouraging evidence-based practice within the field as a whole, and recently the EFPA Board of Scientific Affairs was tasked with assessing the state of EBPP (evidence-based practice in psychology) across its members.

In 2015 the board came up with a definition of EBPP: ‘Evidence-based practice in applied psychology is the integration of the best available research with shared professional expertise in the context of client characteristics, culture and preferences’, which was based on the American Psychological Association’s 2006 definition. In a survey the board asked members their thoughts on the definition as well as attempting to get a picture of EBPP in Europe – asking them what other definitions are used, how EBPP can be promoted and whether EBPP was promoted in undergraduate and postgraduate training or CPD.

Remo Job (University of Trento), chair of the board, presented the findings from this survey, which 15 out of the 34 members’ associations responded to. While it was a limited sample, around 90 per cent agreed with the definition put forward by the board, but the questions exploring the state of EBPP in the countries sampled revealed a more mixed picture.  

Around 43.5 per cent of those sampled said EBPP was part of postgraduate training, and 39.1 per cent said it was part of undergraduate training, while around 17 per cent didn’t know. When asked if CPD was mandatory in their country, 56.5 per cent said yes, and 43.5 per cent said no. Those who said yes were asked whether EBPP was part of that further training, and it emerged that it is often up to an individual to look for opportunities for learning.

Job said one respondent referred to EBPP as ‘serendipitous and capricious’, which he said this was an opinion seen again and again: people see EBPP as relevant to some areas in psychology but not others. The survey also asked whether the inclusion of EBPP was formally monitored in postgraduate training, undergraduate training and CPD, a majority answered none of those and commented that further formal monitoring would be quite unwelcome.

Responses to an open question asking what member associations did to promote EBPP varied too, while there is no formal promotion in many organisations, Norway has it as an obligatory part of CPD, and Sweden has developed a policy programme of EBPP.

As Job pointed out there are still many issues with evidence-based practice, particularly within psychology, and the very concept of EBPP is a fuzzy one, with the understanding of values associated with it varying by discipline. Many psychologists believe it isn’t relevant for their particular area of the science, and many misconceptions about it still exist.

We need to raise awareness of the concept, Job said, and think of it as a process rather than a state. He said early exposure to EBPP during training and for young practitioners was important. He also emphasised a need to share ideas on how best to promote and implement EBPP.

Predicting compassion in adulthood
Around 3500 Finnish people have been assessed periodically since their birth in, or around, 1980 as part of a longitudinal study to determine risk factors for cardiovascular diseases. The Young Finns data set, which also includes reams of psychological measures on the participants, has attracted much research. Just some of this was discussed during a symposium at the European Congress.

Mirka Hintsanen (University of Oulu) has been looking at the relationship between the early parent–child relationship and that child’s levels of compassion in adulthood. Her sample consisted of 2761 participants, and their parent–child relationship was reported via mothers in an early measure, while participants self-rated their compassion in 1997, 2001 and 2012.

She found higher emotional warmth was associated with higher compassion overall, and higher acceptance from the mother was also related to higher compassion but only in an adjusted model. It seems maternal emotional warmth affects the level of compassion but not trajectory – it increases with age regardless. Her results are in line with previous findings on prosociality and empathy, these traits are also predicted by high emotional warmth in childhood, she suggested they might share developmental or environmental roots. However there is the possibility that genes could partly explain the findings.

Kia Gluschkoff (University of Helsinki) has also explored compassion in the Young Finns sample but whether it is related to early-life care arrangements. She asked whether being cared for at home, at a centre run by professionals, or by extended family both as a toddler and as a six-year-old would predict later compassion.

Care arrangements in the toddlers were not associated with compassion as adults, but by contrast those who were cared for in a centre as six-year-olds showed more compassion in adulthood – a statistically significant finding. Those who were home-cared as toddlers and went into centre-based care in early childhood had above-average levels of compassion in adulthood.

Gluschkoff said this raises questions – could early childhood be a more sensitive stage where the environment influences prosocial traits? Perhaps, she suggested, having older children cared for in a centre would give them chance to practise prosocial behaviours, which would not necessarily be the case for younger children.

Childhood eating habits – where do they lead?
It is only in the last decade or so that epidemiological studies have started to reveal the true nature of eating disorders. Dr Pauline Jansen (Erasmus University Rotterdam) has been involved with researching a prospective birth cohort of subjects, called Generation R, to start to identify early indicators of eating disorders and problems.

The Generation R cohort was gathered in 2002 to identify any patterns with around 7500 children still participating in the project today. Children, and their parents, periodically visit a local hospital for questionnaires, surveys and many medical tests and measurements.  

Jansen has been exploring fussy eating among the cohort, an issue where there’s still little agreement over whether it should be accepted as a normal part of childhood or whether it’s a more worrying pattern. It is unclear how many children are fussy eaters, but estimates range from 14 to 50 per cent; with some suggesting it peaks at the age of three, while others say it could be a stable trait throughout childhood.

In the Generation R cohort fussy eating was assessed at the ages of two, four and six, using a two-item checklist asking parents whether the child refused to eat or didn’t eat well. Around a quarter of children were fussy eaters at two, rising to 27.7 per cent by age three and dropping to 13.2 per cent at six – suggesting a peak at around three years old followed by a reduction in the behaviour with age.

At the age of four the parents of Generation R children were given a more in-depth measure of fussy eating. The fussy children tended to feel full quicker, eat more slowly and not approach food as much as others. Being a boy, non-Western and in a lower socio-economic status family also predicted being classified as a fussy eater.

Epidemiological studies also have the benefit of helping us to see symptoms progress over time; indeed, Jansen found children who were fussy at four had a higher risk of being underweight two years later. While there was no overall link between fussy eating and behavioural or emotional problems, those who were persistently fussy throughout the ages assessed were more likely to have pervasive developmental problems. Jansen emphasised that no causal effect could be established in such a study, though it could potentially be an early warning sign of problems developing. While fussy eating seems to be relatively harmless overall, it may be more worrying if a child is persistently fussy.

Jansen and her colleagues also wanted to explore the potential intergenerational transmission of eating problems. Many individuals with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia have had a mother with eating problems, and, while still pregnant, Generation R mothers were assessed on their history of eating disorders and were later assessed on their child-feeding behaviours.

The children of mothers who had had anorexia or bulimia in the past actually had better dietary quality, these mothers also did not pressure their child to eat when they didn’t want to and weren’t restrictive or too controlling over their child’s food intake. However, these children did show more emotional overeating at the age of four, a finding that was confirmed by teacher reports, Jansen said this could suggest problems in emotion regulation in those children – something that is associated with eating disorders.

Some feeding practices among parents have been decried in recent years for encouraging unhealthy eating behaviours in children. Jansen looked into the cause-and-effect relationship of two controlling feeding behaviours – restriction, or attempts to regulate or limit certain types of food, and pressure to eat – offering food to children or asking them to finish their food. The former has been linked to overeating and being overweight, while pressure to eat has been linked to fussy eating and being underweight.

But Jansen has found that it is not the parental practices that lead to fussy eating or overeating, rather it is these behaviours that lead to parents responding with restriction or encouragement to eat. That is, parents of fussy eaters tend to encourage children to eat, while those with overweight children understandably try to restrict some foods – the child’s behaviour tends to trigger the parental behaviours rather than vice versa.

There has also been a link between constipation and fussy eating – with further investigation Jansen found a bidirectional relationship between the two. She said fussy eating may be caused by constipation and painful bowel movements, but similarly fussy eating can cause constipation – probably through a lack of fibre.

Work with the Generation R cohort continues and will hopefully go some way to revealing the patterns and associations with developing eating problems and eating disorders in later life.

Predicting compassion in adulthood
Around 3500 Finnish people have been assessed periodically since their birth in, or around, 1980 as part of a longitudinal study to determine risk factors for cardiovascular diseases. The Young Finns data set, which also includes reams of psychological measures on the participants, has attracted much research. Just some of this was discussed during a symposium at the European Congress.

Mirka Hintsanen (University of Oulu) has been looking at the relationship between the early parent–child relationship and that child’s levels of compassion in adulthood. Her sample consisted of 2761 participants, and their parent–child relationship was reported via mothers in an early measure, while participants self-rated their compassion in 1997, 2001 and 2012.

She found higher emotional warmth was associated with higher compassion overall, and higher acceptance from the mother was also related to higher compassion but only in an adjusted model. It seems maternal emotional warmth affects the level of compassion but not trajectory – it increases with age regardless. Her results are in line with previous findings on prosociality and empathy, these traits are also predicted by high emotional warmth in childhood, she suggested they might share developmental or environmental roots. However there is the possibility that genes could partly explain the findings.

Kia Gluschkoff (University of Helsinki) has also explored compassion in the Young Finns sample but whether it is related to early-life care arrangements. She asked whether being cared for at home, at a centre run by professionals, or by extended family both as a toddler and as a six-year-old would predict later compassion.

Care arrangements in the toddlers were not associated with compassion as adults, but by contrast those who were cared for in a centre as six-year-olds showed more compassion in adulthood – a statistically significant finding. Those who were home-cared as toddlers and went into centre-based care in early childhood had above-average levels of compassion in adulthood.

Gluschkoff said this raises questions – could early childhood be a more sensitive stage where the environment influences prosocial traits? Perhaps, she suggested, having older children cared for in a centre would give them chance to practise prosocial behaviours, which would not necessarily be the case for younger children.

Testing communication styles
We’ve all met leaders who can’t help but seem aggressive, or those who brim over with enthusiasm. While much research has been carried out on leadership styles, little has looked into communication styles and how these might affect employees’ productivity. As part of her master’s research Charlotte Malz (University of Zurich) developed, and tried to validate, a scale that would capture and assess different communication styles among leaders.  

While Malz explained that leadership research has seen communication as a strategy of leaders not much has looked into this on its own. She said there was a need for a short, feasible scale to assess this in leaders, one that could be used in research on the links between leadership and communication styles.

She developed a scale that covered six communication styles – expressiveness, preciseness, supportiveness, aggression, determination and inquisitiveness – and tested a Swedish and German version on almost 500 participants. Students were later recruited to help validate the items on the scale.

While the scale worked in both Swedish and German the determination and preciseness articles were not fully validated by the student participants. Malz said she hoped to develop this work further, as well as exploring leadership and communication style links in the future.

Award for British psychologist
BPS member Professor Dave Bartram (University of Sussex) was the first ever recipient of the EFPA Robert Roe Award for Outstanding Contribution of Psychology to Society. The award is aimed at those who have brought psychologists from across Europe together, and Bartram has done so throughout his 30-year career developing standards of psychological testing across the continent.  

Bartram, who was nominated jointly by the BPS Division of Occupational Psychology and the European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology, said he was particularly honoured to receive the award at the opening ceremony of the European Congress: ‘Robert Roe was a friend, colleague and inspiration, and it is very special to have an award named after him… I was surprised to get the nomination and even more surprised to get the award!’

Delivering psychological interventions online
Dr David Daniel Ebert, who was given the Comenius Early Career Psychologist Award during the conference, has become well known for his online and mobile-based interventions. With the ability to reach a far wider client group and to treat those who may otherwise feel unable to seek help, Ebert made a striking case for embracing technology in what we do.

One of these interventions, the GET.ON Mood Enhancer, consists of six guided self-help lessons, each followed by feedback from a psychologist, or ‘e-coach’. Clients also receive push notifications with reminders for homework and ultra-brief training exercises such as muscle-relaxation techniques.

Ebert wanted to assess whether it was possible to halt the development of major depressive disorder in participants whose scores were just below the clinical range. After they used the GET.ON platform he measured the time it took for this disorder to appear in its clinical form in 406 people (with a control group just receiving psychoeducation). Indeed, it was shown it was possible to reduce a person’s risk of developing major depressive disorder using this approach. An adapted version of the platform was also useful in helping people with diabetes tackle depression, an effect which was maintained at one-year follow-up.

Another pervasive problem, work-related stress, also responds to this kind of online treatment. GET.ON Stressed, another programme developed by Ebert, which taught problem-solving and emotion regulation helped to reduce perceived stress, which continued at six- and 12-month follow-up, and it also helped reduce depression and emotional exhaustion. As Ebert said, people struggling with stress at work may not be willing to go into a specialised depression treatment programme, but this stress intervention helped depression as well. He and colleagues also saw a reduction in absent days and a lowering of the costs associated with absenteeism.

Many of those who suffer with work-related stress, perhaps unsurprisingly, experience insomnia, and only around 1 per cent get treatment for this. A new intervention GET.ON Recovery uses classic CBT for insomnia with feedback from a psychologist, delivered online, and teaches users about sleep hygiene and other methods for better sleep. In a randomised control trial with stressed teachers Ebert found a strong effect size, further backed up by replications. Once you remove the psychologist from the equation, however, the treatment is less effective.

These treatments offer hope that one day we might be able to treat massive amounts of people across the world in a number of conditions in a brief, relatively cheap way. But would they work for everyone? Ebert and his team carried out a meta-analysis of internet-based treatments of depression and found the treatment to be effective for all of the subgroups he examined: those with severe depression, younger and older adults and those with different levels of educational attainment. Although, Ebert pointed out, there are potentially moderators for the effectiveness of these interventions he and his team are yet to find them.

Some studies have associated these treatments with harmful or negative effects, and it’s important to consider that some individuals may struggle with implementing psychological strategies into daily life thus leading to further hopelessness, lower self-efficacy and potentially a deterioration of symptoms.

Ebert has also examined rates of deterioration in symptoms in some subgroups and found that internet interventions generally reduced the risk of deterioration apart from on one group. Those with lower levels of educational attainment had a larger risk of symptom deterioration compared to controls – while this effect wasn’t significant it suggests a trend for some participants struggling with this type of intervention.   

These interventions can be effective in treating a number of disorders and can be helpful to those who don’t have time for face-to-face therapy or those who feel their conditions are stigmatised. Ebert ended by saying that now we can conclude it’s possible to deliver interventions online, he’s interested in how we can go further beyond face-to-face therapy using technology to improve psychological interventions; he suggested that using wearables to identify behaviour patterns, machine learning to inform what would be the best treatment at the best times are very real possibilities.

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