News

Co-sleeping; youth drinking and smoking; MindFit; baby DVDs; food additives; and more
Literacy Sponsorship Deal in South Africa The English phonics programme THRASS (Teaching Handwriting Reading And Spelling Skills), pioneered by educational psychologist Alan Davies (see Letters, June 2007) is to benefit from corporate sponsorship from ABSA, the largest bank in South Africa. ABSA, a member of the Barclays Group, will be sponsoring THRASS through the TalkTogether Project, whose primary aim is to increase literacy in South Africa through the improved teaching and learning of English, which will be achieved by partnering universities, primary schools and other organisations.

Literacy Sponsorship Deal in South Africa

The English phonics programme THRASS (Teaching Handwriting Reading And Spelling Skills), pioneered by educational psychologist Alan Davies (see Letters, June 2007) is to benefit from corporate sponsorship from ABSA, the largest bank in South Africa. ABSA, a member of the Barclays Group, will be sponsoring THRASS through the TalkTogether Project, whose primary aim is to increase literacy in South Africa through the improved teaching and learning of English, which will be achieved by partnering universities, primary schools and other organisations.

For more on the TalkTogether Project, go to www.talktogether.co.za.

Physical Illness and Mental Health Leaflet

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has published a new leaflet explaining the psychological consequences of developing a serious physical illness. Physical Illness and Mental Health, which is the latest in the College’s ‘Help Is at Hand’ Series, describes how the stress of being physically ill can lead to depression and anxiety, and that some treatments, such as steroids, can cause mental illness directly because of their effect on the brain. The leaflet states that some people find it difficult to seek help for the psychological problems that stem from having a serious physical illness; there is often a mistaken sense that because such distress is understandable, nothing can be done about it.

The leaflet is available from the College’s website www.rcpsych.ac.uk.

Psychologist in Portrait Gallery

Portrait paintings of ‘inspirational’ women commissioned from the artist Jeroo Roy were on display in the National Portrait Gallery in London in September. Among the portraits was one of clinical psychologist and BPS member Zenobia Nadirshaw.

 

A bedtime story

When it comes to parents sharing their bed with their children, a gulf is emerging between the advice given by professionals and what parents are actually doing. While the American Academy of Paediatrics has declared in unequivocal terms that bed-sharing is unsafe, more parents than ever are sleeping with their children – 12.8 percent in 2000, compared with 5.5 per cent in 1993 (USA figures). This is the backdrop for a new special issue of the journal Infant and Child Development. A paper by Kathleen Ramos at California State University and colleagues argues that it is important to recognise there are two types of ‘co-sleeper’: those parents who sleep with their young children because they believe it is the right thing to do (intentional co-sleepers), and ‘reactive co-sleepers’ who have resorted to sharing their bed with their child in an attempt to alleviate their child’s sleeping problems.

Ramos’ survey of 139 parents of young children found that co-sleepers were more likely to report their child exhibited sleeping behaviours, such as waking in the night, which are typically viewed as problematic, but that only reactive co-sleepers tended to perceive these behaviours to be a problem. Further research was recommended to determine if the sleep habits of the reactively co-sleeping children really are different from the intentionally co-sleeping children, or if it is entirely a matter of perception.’

When professionals advise parents not to sleep with their children it is normally for medical reasons – because of the risk of sudden infant death syndrome. Indeed, a leaflet distributed by the Department of Health to all maternity units in England says: ‘While it’s lovely to have your baby with you for a cuddle or a feed, it’s safest to put your baby back in their cot before you go to sleep’. However, an internet survey by anthropologists James McKenna and Lane Volpe (University of Notre Dame) found that around a third of mothers believed co-sleeping had actually saved their child’s life, for example because it allowed them to intervene when their child was choking. But the researchers said co-sleeping should not be considered a simple medical issue. They found mothers were motivated to sleep with their children by deeply embedded maternal emotions, and that the practice made breastfeeding easier.

Indeed, a longitudinal study by Helen Ball at the University of Durham revealed a link between breastfeeding and bed- sharing habits. Ninety-seven initially breastfed infants were followed from birth for six months. Those infants who were breastfed into their sixth month tended to bedshare for longer than infants who were switched over to formula milk.

Meanwhile, a study by Marie Hayes and colleagues at the University of Maine found that children who used a security object in early infancy were less likely to sleep with their parents when aged three to five years, and less likely to call for their parents in the night.
What about the effect of sleeping arrangements on infants’ sleep cycles? Melissa Burnham at the University of Nevada compared the sleep-wake patterns and melatonin secretion of 10 infants who slept alone and eight sharers, but found no differences. However, she did find that rhythmicity in melatonin had not yet developed in three babies whose parents exposed them to bright lights in the night during nappy changing or breastfeeding.

Finally, Gary Germo and colleagues at the University
of California investigated the effect of sleeping arrangements on the marital harmony of 100 mothers and a separate sample of 38 fathers. Both the mothers and fathers of children with sleeping problems tended to report having more marital problems. The researchers said this association probably reflects a ‘spill-over effect’ in which problems with children’s sleep behaviours carry over to other areas of family life, but that the reverse was also possible; that ‘parents could negatively affect parent–child interaction, thus creating stress for their children’.

Another finding was that the mothers of bed-sharing children (but not fathers) tended to report more satisfaction with the division of labour in their marriage, probably because ‘this sleep arrangement requires the active cooperation of both parents and a joint commitment to night-time parenting’.    CJ

 

Behind the smokescreen

Two fifths of 11- to 15-year-old children have tried smoking, one fifth have been drunk in the last month, and more than a third have been offered drugs. Amongst a ‘hard core’ of around 1 in 10 pre-teens who report having drunk in the last week, average consumption has almost doubled in the last five years, to around 10 units a week. That’s according to the latest report from the NHS Information Centre for Health and Social Care, ‘Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use among Young People in England in 2006’ (tinyurl.com/2argda). But just how accurate are these surveys? This survey has been running since 1982, and the full report does address the issue of reliability and honesty: ‘Collecting information in school classrooms rather than homes and repeated assurances of confidentiality are key factors in encouraging honest reporting of behaviours which pupils may wish to conceal from adults or to exaggerate to their peers’. The survey has also, in the past, established relative honesty by testing saliva samples for the presence of cotinine, a metabolite of nicotine, and by inserting a question about ‘Semeron’, an imaginary drug. However, some psychologists suggest that issues remain.

The Psychologist spoke to Professor Richard Hammersley (Glasgow Caledonian University). ‘This survey has become a repeated one, which makes people reluctant to change it,’ he said. ‘It is industry standard, but I have concerns about the way that such surveys are conducted and reported. In particular,
from the wealth (or surfeit) of statistics provided it is possible for anyone, particularly journalists, to cherry-pick any factoid that they fancy.

‘However, generally the evidence is that people, of all ages, actually underreport in surveys. For example, according to national UK surveys, about a third of the alcohol purchased in the UK (which is known from tax records) is not drunk by anyone. There is not any evidence that younger people exaggerate their substance use.’

So young people seem to be honest about such habits, but are they necessarily accurate? Hammersley says that ‘there is considerable scope for bias due to lack of knowledge and confusion about alcohol – what is a ‘strong’ beer, for example? It is better to get people to write down what they actually drank over the last week and code this, but it is more work and large-scale surveys like this tend to rely on quantity/frequency estimates.’

If the survey was to be changed for future years, Hammersley recommends the use of more ‘state of the art’ methods of avoiding bias. ‘The most important of these is to use a technique that allows respondents to lie about some answers in a systematic way that can be corrected for in the statistics, but which prevents the answers being traced to individual questionnaires. Otherwise, despite assurances that it is completely confidential, the respondent knows that they could in theory be identified from their school and date of birth information.’     JS

 

In brief

From the American Psychological Association’s 115th Annual Convention, San Francisco, 17–20 August 2007.
The APA’s Council of Representatives reaffirmed the organisation’s opposition to torture and abuse, and explicitly prohibited psychologists’ participation in
19 named techniques, including water-boarding and sexual humiliation. The new resolution came after fresh media revelations over the summer highlighted the involvement of psychologists in American military interrogations (see News, August 2007).

However, the resolution fell short of a blanket prohibition of psychologists’ involvement in interrogation practices, a move which would have brought the profession in line with the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association. Moreover, some psychologists have raised concerns over loopholes. For example, rather than prohibiting isolation and/or sleep deprivation unequivocally, the resolution adds the qualification ‘[when] used in a manner that represents significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm’.

With at least twelve meetings at the convention devoted to discussing ethics and interrogation, the issue threatened to overshadow the convention for the second year running (see News, October 2006).

Men who cope well with stress have higher levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDL) – so-called ‘good cholesterol’ – in their blood, than do men who respond to stress with hostility. Loriena Yancura (University of Hawaii at Manoa) and colleagues measured levels of hostility and stress coping processes in a predominantly white sample of 716 men with an average age of 65. While the study is limited by its cross-sectional design, the researchers said coping processes might ‘play a protective role through their influence on HDL’.

Seven perpetrators of school shootings in America between 1995 and 2004 had at least one thing in common – they suffered from ‘cynical shyness’. That’s according to psychologists Bernardo Carducci and Kristin Nethery (Shyness Research Institute, Indiana University Southeast) who say this extreme form of shyness is characterised by a lack of empathy, low tolerance for frustration, anger outbursts, social rejection, and bad family relations. ‘Most young people who are shy do not experience their shyness as a source of anger and hostility,’ the researchers said. ‘But for those shy students who are seemingly isolated and angry, we need to provide ways for them to learn how to engage with others and create a sense of community for themselves.’ The researchers formed their conclusions after studying media coverage from the incidents.     CJ

 

MindFit programme

A Computer-based training programme that claims to protect against age-related mental decline was launched in the UK in September. MindFit, developed in Israel and already available in the US, is officially endorsed by neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield who said ‘There is now good scientific evidence to show that exercising the brain can slow, delay and protect against age-related decline.’ The programme is marketed by the Oxford spin-out company Mindweavers, which merged with Greenfield’s Brainboost company in 2005.
 

Earlier this year, MindFit’s developers, Professor Shlomo Breznitz and Dr Nir Giladi of the Sourasky Medical Center of Tel- Aviv University in Israel, announced the results of a new clinical trial showing the beneficial effects of the programme on short-term memory, spatial relations and attentional focus.

According to a press release, half of 121 participants aged over 50 spent 30 minutes, three times a week for three months performing the MindFit exercises. The remaining participants spent the same time playing sophisticated computer games. All the participants reportedly showed cognitive improvements, but the participants who used MindFit showed greater improvements, and, crucially, the MindFit participants with lower baseline performance showed the greatest improvement. However, so far the results appear to be unpublished (a PubMed search on both researchers’ names failed to uncover a published study).

Moreover, Dr Cindy Lustig at the University of Michigan told us the evidence base isn’t quite as straightforward as the promoters of MindFit would have us believe. For example, a meta-analysis of 33 studies by Dr Paul Verhaeghen and colleagues in 1992 found that older people, who have the most to gain from mental training programmes, actually tend to show less improvement than younger adults. ‘Unfortunately, the benefits of training are often smallest for the individuals who need them most,’ Lustig wrote with her colleague Dr David Bissigat of Wayne State University in a recent article published in Psychological Science, entitled ‘Who benefits from memory training?’ The developers of MindFit claim this pattern hasn’t been found for their product, but as their research is currently unpublished, their claim is difficult to assess.

Cindy Lustig also cautioned that just because mental training programmes have been shown to lead to cognitive improvements in the lab doesn’t mean these benefits will translate to real-life situations, such as remembering a shopping list or how to get to a given destination. ‘In summary,’ she told us, ‘these training programmes aren’t going to hurt you, and probably do have some benefits, but they aren’t going to turn an 80-year-old brain into a 20-year-old one.’

Lustig’s research aims to find out why older people typically benefit less than younger people from mental training. One suggestion is that the benefit of mental training interacts with individual differences in what psychologists call ‘controlled processing’ – that is the self-initiated, effortful cognitive processes, such as the deep encoding of to-be-remembered items, that underpin successful mental performance. Indeed, Lustig’s study in Psychological Science found that a training programme that targets recollection memory was most beneficial to the older participants who chose to spend more time encoding to-be-remembered words. The finding suggests it might be possible to encourage older or lower-ability people to encode stimuli more deeply, thus helping them benefit more from mental training programmes.     CJ

 

CFS clinical guidance published

THE National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has published new guidelines on caring for people with chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME): a ‘relatively common’ condition with symptoms that can ‘can be as disabling as multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, congestive heart failure and other chronic conditions.’
 

The guidance states it is important for healthcare professionals to acknowledge the reality and impact of the condition and its symptoms. Clinicians should establish a supportive and collaborative relationship with the CFS/ME sufferer and their carers. Advice should be provided on symptom and sleep management, including the importance of building rest periods into one’s routine. Where possible, people should be offered one-on-one cognitive behavioural therapy or graded exercise therapy. However, advice should not be given to ‘undertake unsupervised, unstructured, vigorous exercise’, which may worsen symptoms.     CJ

Full guidelines at http://guidance.nice.org.uk/CG53.

 

Depression and general health

People with depression have poorer health on average than those with chronic physical conditions like angina, arthritis, asthma and diabetes, according to research by the World Health Organization. People with depression plus a chronic physical illness have the worst health of all. Researchers measured the health of 245,404 participants across 60 countries using 18 questions, including one about difficulties with working and household activities, and others related to ‘vision, mobility, self-care, cognition, interpersonal activities, pain and discomfort, sleep and energy, and affect’.
Writing in The Lancet (tinyurl.com/ywe96x), Saba Moussavi and colleagues said it was imperative that health systems worldwide address the exacerbation in disability that comes from having depression. ‘Primary care providers must be taught not to ignore the presence of depression when patients present with a chronic physical condition, in view of the marked effect that it has on an individual’s health.’
    CJ

 

Apprehension about living donors

Patients in Scotland who need a new liver are declining living donor transplants from relatives because they see it as too much of a risk for their loved one.
The Living Donor Liver Transplantation programme was introduced at the Scottish Liver Transplant Unit in April 2006 (see our News analysis from March 2006, at www.bps.org.uk/liver). So far no patients in Scotland have pursued the option. Reporting her findings at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Health Psychology Annual Conference at the University of Nottingham, Lesley McGregor (University of Stirling) and colleagues said the biggest problem was that patients felt they ‘couldn’t live with themselves’ if anything happened to the donor as a result of the operation.

McGregor said: ‘The patients didn’t want their loved ones to donate because they knew they would have to give up approximately two-thirds of their healthy liver, with roughly a one in 200 chance of death. But the potential donors just wanted to help their ill relative, irrespective of the risk, which has the potential to cause significant tension within the family unit.’

Also at the conference, Professor Eamonn Ferguson (University of Nottingham) and colleagues presented evidence that common daily symptoms could be related to the perception of everyday smells. People provided data on their personality and then completed a structured diary twice a day for eight days, recording their experiences of common physical symptoms (e.g. abdominal pain, fatigue, chest pain and lower back pain), odours, sounds and stress. Seventy different odours were reported with hot food, paint, smoke/fire, coffee, and chemicals the most frequently mentioned.
Both the intensity of odour and stress were reported to increase at the same time as reporting more severe symptoms; however, only the intensity of odour – not stress – predicted future symptom reporting over a short half-day interval.

Professor Ferguson said: ‘These results highlight the importance of everyday odour with respect to the experience of common physical symptoms, showing that common environmental experiences, rather than stress, predict symptoms over short intervals. It may be that people come to associate particular odours with symptoms and the experience of the odour triggers the experience of symptoms.’    JS

 

Conference Report

From the BPS Cognitive Psychology Section Conference, University of Aberdeen, 20–22 August 2007.

Besides malt whisky tasting and an exuberant ceilidh dance, highlights from this well-attended conference included keynotes from Andrew Calder (MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit), Stephen Kosslyn (Harvard University) and Akira Miyake (University of Colorado at Boulder).

Andrew Calder opened the conference with the Cognitive Section Prize Lecture, awarded for his 2005 paper with Andrew Young, Understanding the recognition of facial identity and facial expression (Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 6, 641–651). There is a commonly held view in face research that facial identity (who a person is) and facial expression (the mood and feeling of that person) are processed by distinct parallel visual routes. However, Calder argued that this assumption does not fit the extant data as well as is often assumed. Instead, their work on image-based analysis of faces using a statistical technique called principal component analysis (which allows large numbers of variables to be reduced to a smaller set for analysis) demonstrates that the apparently distinct perception of facial identity and facial expression can in fact be modelled within one representational framework.

The subsequent symposium on face perception included Roberto Caldara (University of Glasgow) and colleagues’ work on cultural differences in face processing. Caldara reported that Western Caucasians appear to show a different pattern of eye moments to East Asians. Whereas Western Caucasians show a triangular exploration of faces, focusing on the eye and mouth areas, East Asians fixate more often towards the middle of the face. Whether this is due to a social norm to do with avoiding direct gaze, or a tendency for East Asian observers to process information more holistically is unclear, but Caldara emphasised that data like these suggest face processing cannot be assumed to arise from a unique and universal series of perceptual events.

Another symposium introduced conference delegates to the idea of ‘cognitive feelings’ (CFs). Convened by Chris Moulin, Celine Souchay and Martin Conway (all University of Leeds), this session explored the idea that our CFs (for example, the experience of remembering something) play an important role in guiding processing. Historically, CFs have either been considered unimportant, or just not amenable to experimental investigation; however, the talks in this symposium proved neither to be the case. Arguably we become most aware of the role CFs play when they go wrong; an example would be the experience of déjà vu, as discussed by Akira O’ Connor and colleagues. Another example was discussed by Chris Moulin: ‘jamais vu’. Don’t think you know what jamais vu means? Pick a simple word (e.g. door) and write it down repeatedly. By the time you have written it 30 times, you might find that it ceases to have any meaning, or the spelling looks wrong. That sensation is jamais vu, and Moulin has successfully created and studied it in a laboratory setting.

Finally, it is well established that mobile phone use while driving is dangerous; however Gemma Briggs and colleagues (University of Sussex) reported that this is particularly the case when conversations are emotionally involving. Through judicious use of participants either frightened or unaffected by spiders, they found that phobic participants made more driving errors and had a narrower range of eye movements (‘visual tunnelling’) during spider-related conversations. So, if you must have a mobile phone conversation while driving (and shame on you – it’s illegal!), at least try and stay calm while you do it.

Sandie Cleland, School of Psychology, University of Aberdeen

 
In brief

More from the American Psychological Association Convention.
Many soldiers returning from conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan who have been referred for a psychological evaluation, also report problems with family readjustment. Steven Sayers and colleagues at the Philadelphia VA Medical Centre investigated 168 returning veterans undergoing a psychiatric evaluation. They found that two thirds of those who were married or cohabiting reported frequent family problems such as feeling like a guest in their own household or their children not acting warmly towards them, or even being afraid of them. The researchers said their findings suggested treatment for the soldiers might be improved by involving the family.

Social stress can have serious health consequences for people who are at risk of inflammatory diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS). Now experiments on mice have helped reveal the biochemical processes underlying this interaction. Mary Meagher at Texas A&M University exposed three young male rats to two hours with an aggressive older male rat for several nights in succession. The social stress appeared to increase levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a type of protein called a cytokine that regulates immune and inflammatory functions. By blocking IL-6 with an antibody, Meagher was able to reduce the exacerbating effects of social stress on the mice’s reaction to infection with Theiler’s murine encephalomyelitis – a virus that normally results in MS-like symptoms.

The APA marked the 40th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King’s speech to their annual meeting by announcing plans for a three-year ‘national discussion’ on race, peace and justice grounded in King’s teachings. In 1967 King urged psychologists to expand their role by studying and supporting strategies, such as reducing earnings, health and education disparities, that would foster the psychological well-being of large segments of society. He also called on psychologists to study the way the problems of racism, classism and militarism are related.

A standing-room only crowd greeted psychology giant Albert Bandura, who discussed his early work and next endeavours. Despite being best known to  students everywhere for the landmark studies he conducted 45 years ago on the modelling of aggression, Bandura says the work he’s most proud of is what’s to come. He said society’s moral disengagement is threatening our planet and creating tremendous misery for the less fortunate, and his latest work tackles this area. He also discussed how the media are using his theories to promote positive social change.      CJ

 
Hyperactivity linked to food additives

The Food Standards Agency called on members of the food industry to review their labelling practices in September, following publication of a major new study showing a link between artificial food colours/additives and hyperactive behaviour in children.

Donna McCann and colleagues at Southampton University administered a different version of a fruit juice drink to 137 three-year-olds and 130 eight- to nine-year olds each week for six weeks. The drink, given in a sealed container daily, was either laced with a mix of artificial colours equivalent to the typical daily consumption of additives and colours by children, or was an additive/ colour-free placebo. The additive/colour content couldn’t be determined by taste, and the remainder of the children’s diet was kept free from additives and colours.

The researchers reported in a paper published online in The Lancet (see tinyurl.com/2js6mh) that compared with placebo, consuming an additive/colour-containing drink each day for a week had a detrimental effect on the children’s behaviour (both age groups), as judged
by hyperactivity scores given by teachers, parents and independent coders, both at home and in the classroom.

Dr Mike Green, Director of the Nutrition and Behaviour Lab at Aston University told us this was an important, well-controlled and executed study. However, he added: ‘As with a number of such studies in the area of nutrition and behaviour, there is a clash between what is scientifically ideal and what funding agencies are able to pay for. In an ideal world, further research needs to be conducted to determine whether the observed increases in hyperactivity are the result of one particular additive or a combination of several in the mixes used.’                                        CJ

 

Hearing dummy

Nearly half a million pounds has been awarded to a team of psychologists at Essex University to develop their computer model of hearing so that it can be used to improve hearing impairment assessment and the fitting of appropriate hearing aids. ‘The technology behind hearing aids has advanced rapidly over the last few decades,’ says lead researcher Professor Ray Meddis. ‘But the methods used to fit these to patients have not advanced in the same way.’Meddis’ research group have spent the last 20 years developing a computer model of normal hearing, from sound entering the ear all the way to the response of the auditory nerve. The grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Funding Council will be used to develop a theory of the underlying pathology of individual patients, so that their impairment can be represented in a computer model. Having done that, the idea is that various hearing aid algorithms can then be tested on the model – what the researchers dub a ‘hearing dummy’ – without the patient even needing to
be there.

The psychologists are working closely with people in the local audiology clinic and the local hearing aid dispensers. ‘They’re educating us in the realities of hearing aid fitting,’ says Meddis, ‘and we’re trying to convince them of the value of a more detailed measurement practice and an automatic fitting algorithm.’    CJ

 

Baby DVDs and child development

Baby DVDs, which are designed to educate and engage, are actually associated with poorer vocabulary development in children aged under two. That’s according to an observational study by Frederick Zimmerman and colleagues who say it is now important that a large-scale randomised controlled trial of the effects of baby DVDs is conducted. The researchers interviewed 1008 parents of children aged between 2 and 24 months over the phone about how much time their children spent watching children’s TV and baby DVDs such as Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby. The children’s language development was gauged by the parents using a brief vocabulary checklist.

Among the children aged from 8 to 16 months, each extra hour of baby DVD viewing was associated with understanding approximately six to eight fewer words.

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