Fish oil - a supplementary question
NEW results from Australia suggest supplements of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil could help reduce ADHD-type symptoms in children. The findings come as the UK government awaits the results of a review by the Food Standards Agency before deciding whether to administer fish oil supplements routinely to schoolchildren.
Natalie Sinn, a postdoctoral psychology researcher at the University of Southern Australia, recruited 132 children with ADHD symptoms, aged between 7 and 12. Based on parental ratings, she found those children who were given a proprietary supplement called ‘eye q’ – a combination of omega-3 fish oil and omega-6 evening primrose oil – for 15 weeks, showed significant improvements in hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention, relative to the children given a placebo. These behavioural improvements were not reflected in teachers’ ratings, but Sinn said this could be because ‘there were many incidences of teacher sharing, teachers going on leave and children changing schools, compounded with larger class sizes’.
After 15 weeks, the children previously given placebo also started taking the fish oil supplement, at which point they too started showing benefits. Meanwhile, the children who had been taking the fish oil from the start, continued to show further improvements. Overall, based on parents’ ratings, just under 50 per cent of the children were found to benefit from taking fish oil. The findings are due to be published this month in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioural Paediatrics (see www.jrnldbp.com).
‘We don’t really know how the fish oil supplements help reduce ADHD symptoms,’ Natalie Sinn told The Psychologist. ‘But long chain omega-3 fatty acids are found throughout the brain, for example in the structure of cell membranes, and there’s evidence of deficiencies in omega-3 in other developmental disorders.’
Sinn, who was funded by the University of Southern Australia and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, said she hoped in the future to conduct research into why the fish oils appeared to benefit some children but not others. ‘The varied effects could be because of the overlap of ADHD with other conditions like depression, oppositional disorder, and schizophrenia,’ she said.
Sinn’s findings come on the back of a UK trial last year that found fish oil supplements helped improve the behaviour of children struggling at school (see www.durhamtrial.org). But research into the potential benefits of fish oil for ADHD has not been universally welcomed. Educational psychologist Dr Peter Congdon told us: ‘ADHD can arise from a variety of causes, and a combination of causes and, therefore, treatment should be related to the causation.’ Congdon warned that serious learning difficulties, Asperger’s syndrome, dyslexia and other conditions could all potentially lead to ADHD symptoms, especially if the child became frustrated by their difficulties.
‘What about the confused child who finds concentration difficult because he or she is being abused at home?’ he asked.
‘In my experience children who are referred to me with so-called ADHD are more often than not suffering from a variety of problems. A full educational psychological assessment is required… it is essential to treat the underlying causes and not just the symptoms.’ CJ
Open access publisher losing money
PUBLIC Library of Science (PLoS), the flagship open access journal publisher, lost nearly $1 million last year and looks set to rely on philanthropic donations for the foreseeable future, according to an analysis of its annual accounts by Nature (see tinyurl.com/kaxvk). The publisher’s accounts are publicly available at America’s Internal Revenue Service by virtue of its charitable status.
Instead of readers paying a subscription, the open access model involves authors paying to publish their work, which is subsequently available free online for
anyone to read. Public Library of Science’s publications include the high-impact journals PLoS Biology, which occasionally features psychology-related research, and PLoS Medicine. But Nature reports that income from fees and advertising at PLoS covers just 35 per cent of its total costs, which have soared from $1.5million to $5.5 million in the last three years.
In response, PLoS is planning to hike its charges to authors from $1500 to as much as $2500. ‘Now, with three years of operational experience to draw on, it is time for PLoS to adjust this model so that our publication fees reflect more closely the costs of publication’, the organisation says on its website. However, it also notes that a
‘no questions asked’ fee waiver exists for authors who do not have funds to cover publication fees. In addition, editors and reviewers have no access to authors’ payment information, and hence inability to pay will not influence the decision to publish a paper.
The for-profit open access publisher BioMed Central raised its authors’ charges last year, to as much as $1700.
Professor Stephen Morley, chair of the Society’s Journals Committee, said: ‘Up until now it has been almost impossible to find out if the open access model could become financially self-supporting – this evidence seems to show that open access will find it hard to return income to those publishers, like the Society, that spend many thousands of pounds on journal production.’ CJ
- PLoS: www.plos.org.
Shortcomings highlighted in social science doctoral training
SOCIAL science PhD graduates, including those with a psychological background, are highly sought-after among non-academic employers, but their training leaves them without project management and leadership capabilities. That’s according to a survey of non-academic employers’ needs by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). ‘Formal training in these areas was virtually negligible and, unsurprisingly, in a high proportion of cases was not developed at all in the course of studies’, says the ESRC’s published report on its findings, The employment of social science PhDs in academic and non-academic jobs. Several employers also mentioned the lack of quantitative research skills among social science PhD graduates, a concern reflected among PhD graduates themselves, many of whom said they would have benefited from a broader methodological training that went beyond the skills they needed for their particular area of research. The ESRC report says that with the lack of regulation at PhD level – an appropriate situation, it argues, given the aims of doctoral research – it is at master’s degree level that ‘standards of provision and achievement might most usefully be monitored more effectively’.
The report continues: ‘We suggest that there is scope for the development – and recognition – of social science master’s degrees in research and research management, ideally developed in partnership by higher education institutions and one or more non-academic research organisations’.
The report’s findings are based on detailed interviews with representatives from 16 non-academic employers of social science PhD graduates; an online survey of 195 PhD graduates; and interviews with 31 PhD graduates, 9 from the aforementioned online survey.
Dr Peter Banister, chair of the BPS Membership and Professional Training Board, said the general aims of the report ‘were laudable’, but pointed out that:
- psychology undergraduates and the QAA benchmark already include a number of such competencies; this is not necessarily true across the range of social sciences covered by the ESRC.
- the ESRC is but one of a number of Research Councils which support psychology; each have different requirements.
- the ESRC four-year course (incorporating the master’s training detailed above) poses particular problems for self funded and part-time students.
- the lengthening and deepening of postgraduate curricula causes problems, especially given that the total sums involved have remained relatively static.
Professor Dominic Abrams, chair of the Joint Committee for Psychology in Higher Education, added that ‘psychology is one of the lead disciplines that provides both insight into social science issues and highly transferable skills including a solid training in scientific method and statistics. From this point of view psychology graduates are invaluable in many roles, particularly public sector roles, where issues such as service delivery, customer satisfaction, usability and practicality of products and services, and outcomes of policy interventions have to be understood. In addition, psychologists have the research evidence and expertise to train people in communication and team working’.
Although beyond the intended scope of the ESRC report, another finding to emerge was a worrying degree of disillusionment among social science PhD graduates working in academia. Those PhD graduates in non-academic jobs recorded higher mean satisfaction scores than those in academia on every measure except ‘opportunity
to use initiative’ and ‘flexible working arrangements’, and twice as many non-academic, compared with academic, employees gave their jobs the maximum satisfaction rating. A common theme mentioned by academic employees was the difficulty balancing short-term and normally poorly paid employment with academic career development. ‘…[T]he extent to which social science PhD-holders reported dissatisfaction with academic opportunities and disillusion with what had been their chosen career path strikes us as an issue to give the ESRC and all higher education stakeholders pause for thought’, the report says.
Coincidentally, the British Psychological Society’s Research Board has just published a survey of 205 postdoctoral psychology researchers and final year PhD students, and it too raises concerns about the lack of training in project management skills. ‘One way to change this would be for the Society to lobby universities to make seed-funding available exclusively for postdoctoral researchers to submit competitive bids to manage their own small projects’, the report says. CJ
- ESRC survey: tinyurl.com/rhvro
Research Board Survey: tinyurl.com/h4nys
A NEW report suggests three million pensioners will experience mental health problems by 2021 unless action is taken.
Research released by the first independent UK inquiry into mental health and older people shows many over 65-year-olds are experiencing mental health problems as a result of age discrimination, poverty, loneliness and poor physical health.
The report, Promoting Mental Health and Well-being in Later Life, says that action is needed to remove the barriers that prevent older people from participating in society. See www.mhilli.org/inquiry for more information.
PSYCHOLOGY TOP MARKS
BINGLEY Grammar School in Bradford has been named as the best place to study A-level psychology by the Good Schools Guide. The guide, designed to provide independent information on state and private schools, named the best schools to study the 10 most popular A-level subjects.
‘Receiving the award is really exciting for the whole school and a real motivational boost both for our department and the students that we teach,’ said Joanne Corner, head of department at the school. ‘I think one reason we won may be that we try to ensure that we always make our lessons interactive and the material as real to the pupils’ lives as possible.’
Under the influence
IF you want to change someone’s mind, first offer them a cup of coffee. New research conducted at the University of Queensland suggests a caffeine hit leaves us particularly open to persuasion, and that it does so, not by elevating our mood, but by enhancing our ability to process alternative viewpoints.
Pearl Martin and colleagues recruited 60 female students who said they were in favour of voluntary euthanasia, and gave them all a sweetened orange drink. Half the drinks were caffeinated to a strength equal to two cups of espresso, but at the time of testing, neither the students nor the researchers knew which students had consumed which type of drink. Forty minutes later, the students who had drunk the caffeine-laced orange
were swayed far more by six arguments against voluntary euthanasia than those who
had drunk the pure orange.
And it seems it’s not just that caffeine makes us more open to persuasion by improving our mood. Later on, the changed attitudes of the students who had consumed caffeine remained firm even after reading a new set of arguments that contradicted
the first set.
Another aspect of the experiment meant half the students had to cross out the letter O each time it appeared when reading the arguments against voluntary euthanasia. This task served to distract them from the arguments, and when the data from these students only was looked at, caffeine was no longer found to have had any effect on how persuaded they were. This suggests that for caffeine to make us more persuaded by an argument, we need to be able to pay attention to that argument – again suggesting it’s not just elevated mood or arousal that explains the effects.
A second experiment showed that attitudes altered while under the influence of caffeine carry over to related issues. Those students who, having drunk caffeine, were persuaded by arguments against voluntary euthanasia, also appeared to have become more negative towards abortion. This wasn’t the case for the students whose minds were changed without caffeine.
In their report published online in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Pearl Martin and colleagues concluded: ‘If one considers the frequency with which caffeine-containing products are consumed, coupled with the strong social norms of linking caffeine consumption with situations that could involve the processing of persuasive communications (such as, drinking coffee whilst reading a newspaper or watching TV advertisements), the practical implications of our findings to “real world” settings are many.’
Meanwhile, in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, David Nutt of Bristol University discusses how advances in brain chemistry could soon lead to safer alternatives to alcohol. He explains how alcohol’s various effects are mediated by different subtypes of the receptor for the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, and that advances in our understanding of these subtypes could soon allow for the development of compounds that mimic alcohol’s welcome effects, such as elevated mood, but doesn’t have its unwanted effects such as memory impairment and loss of coordination. Moreover, the effects of such compounds could be quickly reversed by taking an ‘antagonist’ compound that acts fast to block these receptors, allowing revellers to ‘sober-up’ instantly.
Nutt says it shouldn’t be too difficult for these novel compounds to be taken in drink form, but that the main obstacle to their development is that they would have to be licensed and prescribed, whereas alcoholic drinks are controlled as a type of food-stuff – a problem outlined in the recent Foresight report (see News, September 2005). He concludes: ‘Perhaps the Foresight report will encourage some ambitious pharma company to take up this challenge and try to make a safer alcohol, and use this to challenge current regulatory barriers. The benefits to society could be so profound that legislative change might be readily produced.’
And if anyone needs persuading, they could always be offered a cup of coffee. CJ
Queen honours Julie's work with bereaved children
CLINICAL psychologist Julie Stokes, founder and chief executive of child bereavement charity Winston’s Wish, has received an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday honours.
‘I am thrilled,’ said Stokes, who is a member of the British Psychological Society. ‘The last time I saw letters O, B and E after my name I cried! It was my A-level results,’ she joked.
‘This means that the needs of bereaved children are being highlighted and all the hard work of the whole team at Winston’s Wish and our partners in the Childhood Bereavement Network is being recognised.
‘Let’s not forget that every 30 minutes a child in the UK is bereaved of a parent. I look forward to the time when there is a local service available in every part of the UK for families who call our helpline wanting a service for their child. We still have a long way to go before every child is guaranteed to get the support they vitally need to help them after the death of a parent or sibling.’
Winston’s Wish was founded in 1992 to meet the needs of bereaved children, young people and their families, after Stokes was inspired by the services she saw in Canada and America. Since then, Winston’s Wish has helped many thousands of children begin to live with their loss, growing from a small local charity to a national scale. CB
- For more information see www.winstonswish.org.uk.
Shedding light on learning
Sandie Cleland reports from the Psychology Learning and Teaching conference.
YORK St John University College hosted the third biennial Psychology Learning and Teaching conference, organised by the Higher Education Academy Psychology Network. Psychologists must be uniquely placed
to understand the learning process, and keynote addresses provided by Robert Bjork (University of California, Los Angeles) and Usha Goswami (University
of Cambridge) shed light on how cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience might inform education.
Robert Bjork highlighted the distinction between performance and learning, and the misconception that the former is a reliable guide to the latter. The problem is that conditions of instruction that lead to rapidly improved performance do not necessarily support learning, whereas conditions that lead to learning do not necessarily improve performance in the short term.
Bjork argued that the key to effective learning is to introduce ‘desirable difficulties’ that result in a slow rate of gain of performance, but do support long-term retention and transfer. These desirable difficulties include varying the conditions of learning, providing contextual interference during learning (see example below), distributing or spacing practice sessions, reducing feedback to the learner and using tests rather than presentations as learning events. Bjork was the first to admit that none of these approaches would be popular with undergraduates (partly due to the confusion between performance and learning), but he drew on compelling evidence from cognitive psychology to support his argument.
To take one example, Bjork cited a study that examined the effectiveness of ‘blocked’ versus ‘interleaved’ practice trials. Simon and Bjork (2001) trained participants on three different tasks, each of which involved producing a set keyboard sequence within a total time. Participants were either trained in blocks (i.e. practising each key sequence repeatedly in one block before moving on to the next), or they were trained on the sequences in a random, interspersed order. Participants were then asked to rate how well they thought they would perform 24 hours later. When tested 24 hours later, the participants trained with interleaved trials performed much better than those who were trained in blocks. Furthermore, the participants trained on interleaved trials predicted their subsequent performance pretty well, whereas the participants trained on blocks vastly overestimated how well they would perform. So what fooled them? Bjork argued that they had confused performance with learning. Participants on the blocked trials were great at performing each task by the end of each block, and so they assumed that they had learned it as well; however the results 24 hours later show a different story.
How does this apply to education in a practical setting? Conventional wisdom tells us to avoid desirable difficulties. The typical undergraduate syllabus is well structured, with modules organised into neat blocks and lectures clearly outlined. Study guides suggest that students find one ‘study space’ and stick to it for all their work. Book shops are full of guides of the ‘Spanish/Shakespeare/HTML made easy!’ variety. In other words, we go out of our way to try and make learning easy when perhaps we should be making things more difficult. However, bearing in mind teaching evaluations, it will take a brave academic to implement this approach!
The application of neuroscience to education is still in its infancy, but Usha Goswami (University of Cambridge) offered a tantalising view into the opportunities it could offer to help understand learning disorders as well as typical development. Modern imaging techniques allow children’s abilities to be studied without requiring the child’s attention, and often without even requiring the child to make a response.
One example cited by Goswami was a study by Dapretto and colleagues this year, which tested the hypothesis that dysfunction in the mirror neuron system early in development may be linked to autistic spectrum disorder. When typically developing children are asked to imitate emotional expressions, their mirror neuron system becomes active. However, the researchers demonstrated that no mirror neuron activity was found in children with autism when they imitated and observed emotional expressions. Furthermore, they found that, the lower the activity of the mirror neuron system, the higher the children scored on symptom severity scales.
It does seem these days that anything with the word ‘brain’ or with ‘neuro’ stuck in front of it finds its way into education very quickly, and Goswami was quick to point out that any educational intervention that claims to be supported by brain studies should be treated with extreme suspicion. In fact, brain imaging techniques provide us with the opportunity to assess the claims of some of these methods. For example, if Brain Gym (which includes the somewhat bizarre practice of pressing ‘brain buttons’ around the body) really does ‘exercise’ the brain, then imaging techniques should be able to see some kind of relevant brain activity linked to the exercises. Now that would be a surprise finding!
- Dr Sandie Cleland is at the University of York.
I'll show them!
WHEN people feel others expect them to do badly, their performance can suffer, a phenomenon that’s been dubbed ‘stereotype threat’. For instance, in the company of men, women have been shown to struggle with a maths task, but not a verbal task, presumably because the pressure not to conform to negative stereotypes about female mathematical ability had a detrimental effect on their performance. But now Michael Inzlicht and colleagues believe they’ve identified a subgroup of individuals –
‘high self-monitors’ – whose performances are resilient to such pressures.
High self-monitors are people who habitually manage the impression they create in the company of others, and they’re identified by their agreement with statements
like: ‘I guess I put on a show to impress or entertain others’. When Inzlicht’s team placed female students in a group with two male students and tested their performance on a maths test, they found those students classified as high self-monitors tended to outperform low self-monitors. By contrast, when they were tested in all-female groups, it was the low self-monitors who performed better.
In a further experiment, high self-monitoring black students performed better than low self-monitoring black students when they were tested in a group alongside two white students. A further measure showed that both high and low self-monitors thought about negative stereotypes when they were in the racial minority, but that high self-monitors had some resilience to these circumstances, whereas low self-monitors suffered more.
‘We suspect that high
self-monitors construe public minority situations as challenges rather than threats because their coping resources are likely to exceed their perceptions of stress,’ the researchers concluded in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Lead researcher Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto said educators might want to consider ‘teaching students to regulate their behaviour through mindfulness and role-modelling exercises as they become aware of how stereotypes affect themselves and others’. CJ
The long and short of it
SAYING a memory is either short-term or long-term might not always be the most useful distinction to make. That’s according to Ingrid Olson and colleagues at the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. They tested nine amnesic patients with hippocampal brain damage on a simple memory task that required them to remember either objects or screen locations, or objects and their screen locations. Compared with healthy controls, the amnesiacs were just as capable of remembering either objects or screen locations they’d been shown eight seconds earlier, but
they were strikingly poor at remembering objects and their screen locations after this brief delay.
Olson said that, in everyday life, this would translate as being able to remember what your keys look like and where your coffee table is, but that the critical test of your memory would be whether you could remember leaving your keys on the coffee table. The researchers call this memory for the relationship between stimuli ‘conjunction memory’, as distinct from memory for things themselves (called ‘feature memory’).
Before now, the hippocampus has been considered important for long-term memory but not short-term or working memory. These new findings, which are published in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggest the hippocampus is important for a particular type of short-term memory – remembering the relationship between different things. The researchers’ published report concludes: ‘The data presented here suggest that the distinction between short and long term memory may be less important than the distinction between feature and conjunction memory in defining the role of the hippocampus in episodic memory.’ CJ
RESEARCH FUNDING NEWS
The Nuffield Foundation New Career Development Fellowship scheme offers high-flying post-doctoral fellows, with independent ideas and questioning minds, the opportunity to take a ‘change of direction’. This change might be through the acquisition of a substantive new body of knowledge or an additional substantial methodology. This can be facilitated via a collaborative partnership between a social scientist in the early stages of their post-doctoral career and an established and experienced social scientist, or a jointly developed research project that will advance the research capacity of the fellow by increasing skills and/or knowledge, and that has a clear relation to issues of social importance. Funding of up to £150,000 for three years is available.
The closing date for applications is 11 September 2006.
- For further details contact [email protected] or see tinyurl.com/obge8.
ESRC in collaboration with RCUK invite applications under its new Interdisciplinary Early Career Research Fellowship Scheme. The scheme aims to foster the development of interdisciplinary research capacity in selected priority areas for cross-Research Council research. Fellowships are being offered under three cross-council research programmes: of particular interest to psychology
is the Environment and Human Health Programme. Applications are invited for fellowships to commence from January 2007 onwards, for periods of up to three years. Applicants must be within six years of the completion of their PhD at the time of application. Closing date is 5 September.
o For further details e-mail [email protected] or visit tinyurl.com/hf38p.
ESRC is also offering International Collaborative Grants, including the Bi-lateral Collaborative Grant, where UK applicants and their partners in corresponding countries may apply simultaneously to ESRC and the parallel national social science agency in the other country. Bi-lateral agreements also normally provide that where more than 70 per cent of the collaborative research falls in one of the countries then the whole funding can be applied in that country. Thus a UK applicant who requires less than 30 per cent of the costs to be spent by the overseas partner can apply for the full sum to ESRC. Countries with which bi-lateral agreements have so far been signed are Australia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Netherlands and Sweden. Discussions for further agreements are underway with the United States, Canada, France and New Zealand.
- See www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk or e-mail [email protected].
The Royal Society Research Professorships scheme provides 10-15 years support for internationally recognised scientists of outstanding achievement and promise. Applications are particularly welcomed from scientists currently resident outside the UK and who wish to return. All disciplines in which the Society elects researchers to the Fellowship of the Royal Society are eligible. Applicants can be of any nationality. Funding includes the research professor’s salary costs of £72,000 per year; a one-off start up grant of up to £35,000 and up to £16,000 research expenses per academic year. Four professorships are available in 2006.
The closing date for applications is 6 September 2006.
- For further details see www.royalsoc.ac.uk/funding.asp?id=1126. The closing date for applications is 6 September 2006.
A guide to the web for psychologists.
An interactive resource from the Face Research Laboratory at the University of Aberdeen.
If you come across a website that you think would be of interest to our readers, let us know on [email protected].
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