Five seemingly different mental health disorders—major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder—may be more alike than we think. A ground-breaking new study has identified four regions of the genetic code that carry same variations in people with these disorders. Two of the affected genes help control the movement of calcium in and out of brain cells. That might not sound like much, but this movement provides a key way that brain cells communicate. Subtle differences in calcium flow could cause problems that, depending on other genes or environmental factors, could eventually lead to a full-blown mental illness. But this work offers tantalizing hints that bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizophrenia—and possibly autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder—may not be so distinct after all, but could be different manifestations of the same underlying disorder. This could change the way we view mental illness and open the door to more effective therapies.
With Black Friday upon us, the holiday season is now officially underway. Although the next month or so provides many opportunities to see family and friends, be generous, and spread good cheer, it can also be a difficult time. In a stressed-out heartbeat, the holiday season can morph into the hell-iday season. Deep breathing, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization can evoke a state of rest and release. Doing them can slow your heartbeat, calm your breathing, lower your blood pressure, and help you chill out. You can’t necessarily eliminate the seasonal stressors. But you can counter them using mini-relaxation exercises, whether you have 10 minutes to spare or just one minute.
The Thanksgiving holiday began, as its name implies, when the colonists gave thanks for surviving their first year in the New World and for a good harvest. Nearly 400 years later, we’re learning that the simple act of giving thanks is not just good for the community but may also be good for the brain and body. Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack. By acknowledging the goodness in their lives, expressing gratitude often helps people recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. This can connect them to something larger—other people, nature, or a higher power. In the relatively new field of positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently linked to greater happiness. Although some people may be born with a gift for expressing gratitude, anyone can learn how to do it. And this mental state grows stronger with use and practice. Here are some ways to cultivate gratitude.
One treatment that can help relieve depression and other mental or emotional problems is cognitive behavioral therapy. It guides individuals to change what they think. A related approach, called metacognitive therapy, helps individuals change how they think. Some preliminary but promising research suggests that metacognitive therapy may be useful for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). One study of 88 adults with ADHD found that metacognitive therapy led to significant reduction in ADHD symptoms in 42% of participants, compared to 12% who received supportive therapy. Keep in mind that metacognitive therapy is not yet a proven therapy. More research is needed on its effectiveness in different settings. But that means it doesn’t yet stack up to its elder cousin, cognitive behavioral therapy. And metacognitive therapy can’t be considered as a first line treatment for ADHD.
A close friend of one of my colleagues committed suicide last week. It happened as so many suicides do—out of the blue. A few days earlier, my colleague had spent the day hanging out with her friend, who was relaxed, upbeat, and normal. Sadly, that’s not uncommon. Many people who commit suicide don’t have an identifiable mental health problem, or give any hints that they are thinking about taking their lives. Every suicide, like every person, is different. Many are sparked by intense feelings of anger, despair, hopelessness, or panic. Suicide almost always raises anguished questions among family members and friends left behind: What did I miss? What could I have done? In my friend’s case, the answers are nothing and nothing. When individuals suddenly take their own lives with no warning, all we can do is look to each other for support. It may be natural to ask, “What did I miss?” But we should remind ourselves what experts say: This kind of death defies prediction.
How’s this for a mind-bender: Lou Gehrig may not have had Lou Gehrig’s disease. Instead, the disease that ended his life may have been chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This brain disease is caused by repeated concussions—Gehrig sustained at least four during his baseball career—or other head injuries. It can cause symptoms very similar to those of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease. More evidence of a connection between CTE and ALS comes from a new study of almost 3,500 retired professional football players, all of whom had played for at least five years in the National Football League. Among the 334 who died during the course of the study, the risk of death from Alzheimer’s disease or ALS was nearly four times higher than expected. Players who manned a “speed” position (such as quarterbacks or receivers) had a risk of dying from Alzheimer’s disease or ALS that was more than three times higher than those playing “non-speed” positions (such as linemen).
For some people with depression that isn’t alleviated by medication or talk therapy, a relatively new option that uses magnetic fields to stimulate part of the brain may help. Called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), it was approved by the FDA in 2008. Although more and more centers are beginning to use transcranial magnetic stimulation, it still isn’t widely available. Transcranial magnetic stimulation directs a series of strong magnetic pulses into the brain. These pulses create a weak electrical current that can increase or decrease activity in specific parts of the brain. In two large studies, rTMS improved depression in 14% of people who underwent it, compared to 5% who underwent sham, treatment. The cost can range from $6,000 to $10,000, depending on the clinic and how many sessions are needed. Insurance may not cover the cost of treatment.
We usually think of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as an aftermath of military combat or terrible trauma. It can also strike heart attack survivors. By the latest account, 1 in 8 people who live through a heart attack experiences a PTSD-like reaction that might be called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They experience the same key symptoms: flashbacks that occur as nightmares or intrusive thoughts. They try to avoid being reminded of the event and become hypervigilant worrying that it will happen again. As treatments for heart attack continue to improve, 1.4 million people a year are now surviving the event long enough to be discharged home. If the study is correct, 168,000 of them will be diagnosed with PTSD every year. It’s a grim reminder that as we get better at fixing the body, we must recognize the need to treat the mind.
The symptoms of a stroke are sometimes obvious, like numbness or weakness on one side of the face, trouble speaking, difficulty walking, and vision problems. Some strokes, though, pass completely unnoticed—at least right away. But as reported in the June issue of the Harvard Women’s Health Watch, the damage these so-called silent strokes cause to fragile brain tissue can have significant and lasting effects on memory. Although silent strokes don’t cause any obvious symptoms, the interruption in blood flow to the brain can harm the processes needed to form or recall memories, especially if several of them occur over time. You can help prevent silent strokes the same way you others, by controlling blood pressure and cholesterol, not smoking, eating a healthy diet, and exercising.
Every Memorial Day we remember the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. We do this with parades, church services, and placing flags on graves. Another way to honor the fallen is by paying attention to the physical and mental health of those who served and returned. A three-month […]