Vitamin D Benefits Common Mental Illnesses By Regulating Serotonin

Study reveals how vitamin D benefits mental disorders, as do omega-3 fatty acids.

Study reveals how vitamin D benefits mental disorders, as do omega-3 fatty acids.

Serotonin regulation could explain why vitamin D benefits many brain disorders, as do marine omega-3 fatty acids, a new study finds.

Depression, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder and even schizophrenia have all been linked to low levels of vitamin D and omega-3.

Low levels of serotonin have been found to impair memory, planning, social behaviour and increase impulsiveness and aggression.

Supplementation with these essential nutrients has shown promise in improving some of these conditions.

Until now, though, scientists have been unsure of the mechanism of how omega-3 and vitamin D benefits such a wide range of conditions.

Vitamin D benefits

The new study, published in the FASEB Journal, finds that the link could be how they interact with serotonin, a vital neurotransmitter (Patrick & Ames, 2015).

Dr Rhonda P. Patrick, the study’s first author,

“In this paper we explain how serotonin is a critical modulator of executive function, impulse control, sensory gating, and pro-social behavior.

We link serotonin production and function to vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, suggesting one way these important micronutrients help the brain function and affect the way we behave.”

Vitamin D is mostly produced in the body when sun strikes the skin, which is why these levels tend to be much lower in the winter.

Along with low levels of vitamin D, many people do not eat enough fish and so have low levels of two critical marine omega-3 fatty acids — Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Dr Patrick said:

“Vitamin D, which is converted to a steroid hormone that controls about 1,000 genes, many in the brain, is a major deficiency in the US and omega-3 fatty acid deficiencies are very common because people don’t eat enough fish,”

The researchers think that the correct intake of both omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D benefits many brain disorders.

Serotonin image from Shutterstock

The Totally Unexpected Effect of Stress On How You Feel Pain

Stress’ effect on pain was the exact reverse of what scientists expected.

Stress’ effect on pain was the exact reverse of what scientists expected.

Scientists have been surprised to find that under psychosocial stress — such as during an exam — people find it more difficult to inhibit pain and feel that pain more intensely.

The results come as a surprise since ‘common knowledge’ suggests that people become more resistant to pain under stress.

In the study, 29 men were given a rigged math test which stressed them out by sometimes telling them their answers were wrong, even when they are right.

Before and afterwards, they were also given a series of different pain tests.

The results, published in the journal Pain, were the exact opposite of what they expected (Geva et al., 2014).

Professor Ruth Defrin, who led the study, explained:

“We were sure we would see an increased ability to modulate pain, because you hear anecdotes about people who are injured during fighting or sports having greater pain modulation.

But we were surprised to find quite the opposite.

While there was no visible effect of acute stress on the subject’s pain threshold or tolerance, pain modulation decreased in a very dramatic way.”

In other words: under stress people could cope with the same amount of pain, but were unable to ‘turn down’ the sensation.

Some people were particularly susceptible to stress, Professor Defrin explained:

“We found that not only does psychosocial stress reduce the ability to modulate pain, the changes were significantly more robust among subjects with stronger reaction to stress (‘high responders’).

The higher the perceived stress, the more dysfunctional the pain modulation capabilities became.

In other words, the type of stress and magnitude of its appraisal determine its interaction with the pain system.

We know from our previous studies and studies of others that chronic stress is far more damaging than acute stress, associated not only with dysfunctional pain modulation capabilities but also with chronic pain and systemic illnesses,”

Professor Defrin continued:

“Modern life exposes individuals to many, recurrent stressful situations.

While there is no way to predict the type of stress we will feel under different circumstances, it is advisable to do everything in our power — adopt relaxation and stress reduction techniques as well as therapy — to reduce the amount of stress in our lives.”

Pain image from Shutterstock

The Weird Things Stress Does To Your Desires and Pleasures

The ironic effect of stress on desire and pleasure.

The ironic effect of stress on desire and pleasure.

Although stress causes a huge increase in people’s desire for an indulgence, like chocolate, ironically it does not increase the pleasure obtained, a new study finds.

People under stress, researchers found, made three times as much effort to just smell some chocolate, compared with other chocolate-lovers who weren’t under stress.

Eva Pool, the study’s lead author, said:

“Most of us have experienced stress that increases our craving for rewarding experiences, such as eating a tasty bar of chocolate, and it can make us invest considerable effort in obtaining the object of our desire, such as running to a convenience store in the middle of the night.

But while stress increases our desire to indulge in rewards, it does not necessarily increase the enjoyment we experience.”

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, had some people hold their hand in ice-water while they were watched and videotaped (Pool et al., 2014).

This served to stress them out in comparison to another group who simply put their hand in lukewarm water.

Both groups, all of whom were chocolate-lovers, were then asked to a squeeze a handgrip for the chance to smell some chocolate.

The group who were under stress squeezed harder on the handgrip, suggesting they wanted the chocolate more than the other group.

However, stress didn’t make people rate the smell of the chocolate any higher.

Dr Tobias Brosch, another of the study’s authors, said:

“Stress plays a critical role in many psychological disorders and is one of the most important factors determining relapses in addiction, gambling and binge eating.

Stress seems to flip a switch in our functioning: If a stressed person encounters an image or a sound associated with a pleasant object, this may drive them to invest an inordinate amount of effort to obtain it.”

Image credit: s-inator

Discovered: How The Brain Repairs Itself After a Stroke

These cells are the key to recovery from a stroke.

These cells are the key to recovery from a stroke.

A mechanism by which the brain creates new nerve cells to help it recover from a stroke has been discovered.

The research could eventually lead to new therapies for stroke sufferers, as well as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease.

Strokes are caused by blood vessels in the brain getting blocked by a clot — this causes nerve cells to die.

The death of vital brain cells can lead to devastating effects on people’s thinking, motor and sensory abilities.

The new study, though, shows exactly how the brain recovers from these insults and might point the way to new treatments.

Researchers in Sweden have found that after a stroke, support cells, known as astrocytes, start to form new nerve cells in the brain (Magnusson et al., 2014).

Astrocytes are the most plentiful type of cell in the human brain and they have a characteristic star-shape (see image above).

The research, published in the journal Science, induced strokes in mice, then used genetic methods to determine that the astrocytes were forming immature nerve cells, which were ultimately maturing.

Professor Zaal Kokaia, one of the study’s authors said:

“This is the first time that astrocytes have been shown to have the capacity to start a process that leads to the generation of new nerve cells after a stroke.”

Olle Lindvall, who co-authored the study, explained how the research might benefit stroke patients, as well as those with Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease:

“One of the major tasks now is to explore whether astrocytes are also converted to neurons in the human brain following damage or disease.

Interestingly, it is known that in the healthy human brain, new nerve cells are formed in the striatum.

The new data raise the possibility that some of these nerve cells derive from local astrocytes.

If the new mechanism also operates in the human brain and can be potentiated, this could become of clinical importance not only for stroke patients, but also for replacing neurons which have died, thus restoring function in patients with other disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease.”

Image credit: Bruno Pascal

How Easily Stress is Transferred Between People

Men and women both showed equivalent empathy despite the stereotype.

Men and women both showed equivalent empathy despite the stereotype.

Seeing another person under stress — even when you’re not involved in the situation — is enough to activate the stress hormone cortisol in your body as well, according to a new study.

In the study, conducted by German psychologists, people who were emotionally closest to each other, demonstrated the highest empathic stress response (Engert et al., 2014).

People even showed a significant empathic stress response when observing strangers under stress over a video link.

In the stress test, participants were given math tests and interviews which made 95% of participants stressed.

Those undergoing the tests were observed by both strangers and partners of those being stressed.

Overall, for 26% of the observers, the stress of the person they were watching was transmitted to them.

The study’s first author, Veronika Engert, was surprised by the findings:

“The fact that we could actually measure this empathic stress in the form of a significant hormone release was astonishing.

There must be a transmission mechanism via which the target’s state can elicit a similar state in the observer down to the level of a hormonal stress response.”

Sometimes the observers watched over a video link, rather than through a two-way mirror.

This made little difference to the transmission of stress to the observer: the average transmission of stress only dropped from 30% to 24%.

Engert pointed out:

“This means that even television programmes depicting the suffering of other people can transmit that stress to viewers.

Stress has enormous contagion potential.”

There was no difference between the empathic stress response of men and women.

This flies in the face of women’s claims in repeated surveys to be more empathic than men.

Image credit: Giulia Bartra

Magic Mushrooms: How They Affect the Brain’s Emotion Centres

Could psilocybin one day be used as an effective anti-depressant?

Could psilocybin one day be used as an effective anti-depressant?

Swiss researchers have shown that psilocybin, the bioactive component in ‘magic mushrooms’, influences the emotional centres of the brain, weakening the effect of negative emotions.

The hallucinogen has long been advocated by some as a treatment for various mental disorders, and this new study provides evidence of how it might work.

In the study, 25 healthy participants were given a moderate dose of psilocybin before having their brains scans (Krähenmann et al., 2014).

Inside the scanner, and with the hallucinogen acting on their brains, participants were shown pictures which are designed to elicit an emotional reaction.

The results of this test were compared with scans taken after a placebo was administered.

The study’s lead author, Rainer Krähenmann, said:

“Even a moderate dose of psilocybin weakens the processing of negative stimuli by modifying amygdala activity in the limbic system as well as in other associated brain regions.”

The limbic system is vital to how we process emotions as well as memories. The amygdala is part of the limbic system and has also been shown to be vital in how we process emotions.

In the study, people’s amygdalas were markedly less reactive to negative stimuli after they had taken psilocybin, compared with the placebo-control condition.

Not only that, but psilocybin put people in a much better mood.

This backs up recent evidence about the dual effects of the drug in decreasing negative emotions and increasing positive emotions:

“…support for the notion that psilocybin may have rapid antidepressant characteristics also comes from a recent clinical trial showing that in patients with depression and anxiety, a single dose of psilocybin improved mood and decreased anxiety for several months.” (Krähenmann et al., 2014).

That said, the effects of psilocybin on depression have not yet been clinically tested.

Image credit: Sasata

Higher Risk of Mental Illness for Those With Older Fathers

Massive study finds children with older dads much more likely to have autism, ADHD and bipolar disorder.

Massive study finds children with older dads much more likely to have autism, ADHD and bipolar disorder.

A new study has found that the children of older fathers have a much greater risk of serious mental illness.

The findings come from a huge number of people: everyone born in Sweden between 1973 and 2001 (D’Onofrio et al., 2014).

The researchers included over 2.5 million people, representing almost 90% of the population.

They found associations between older fathers and psychiatric conditions such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism and ADHD.

When they compared fathers who were 24-years-old with those who were 45-years old, they found that children of the older fathers were:

  • 25 times more likely to have bipolar disorder,
  • 13 times more likely to have ADHD,
  • 3.5 times more likely to have autism,
  • 2.5 times more likely to have suicidal behaviour.

The findings remained after they controlled for birth order, education and a host of other variables.

Brian D’Onofrio, the study’s lead author, expressed surprise at these numbers:

“We were shocked by the findings. The specific associations with paternal age were much, much larger than in previous studies.”

Faulty sperm

The authors suggest that the explanation for the association is that, while women are born with all their eggs, men continue to produce sperm, which degrades in quality over their lifetime.

People are exposed to all kinds of environmental toxins which could cause this kind of genetic mutation.

Molecular genetic studies have indeed found just this degradation in the quality of men’s sperm with age.

D’Onofrio concludes:

“While the findings do not indicate that every child born to an older father will have these problems, they add to a growing body of research indicating that advancing paternal age is associated with increased risk for serious problems. As such, the entire body of research can help to inform individuals in their personal and medical decision-making.”

With the average age at which men have children increasing in many countries, these findings could have important implications for both public policy and for individual decisions about when to procreate.

Image credit: Nisha A

Rethinking The Stress Mindset: Can You Find The Upside of Pressure?

Is it true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, or is stress always debilitating?

Is it true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, or is stress always debilitating?

It’s striking how much of our emotional experience is down to interpretation.

Take the physical feelings you get when you’re about to talk in public: the sweaty palms, the churning stomach and the spinning room. Isn’t that much the same physical experience you get when you’ve fallen in love?

Yet one experience most would run a mile from and the other we enjoy. The difference is partly down to the meaning we give these events.

But how far does this go? What about the hassles of everyday life and stress in general? Is stress really a killer or can it be reinterpreted away?

Well, there’s certainly such a thing as the way that we habitually think about stress. One of the most common, which is frequently reinforced by the media, is the ‘stress-is-debilitating’ mindset.

What Crum et al. (2013) wonder in a new paper is: can we change this mindset and does thinking about stress in a positive way have any effect on how we react to it?

To conduct some preliminary tests, they recruited a group of investment bankers, who were split into three groups, each of which were shown a different 10-minute video. Some of them watched a video that suggested stress can be good for you.

The ‘stress-is-enhancing’ video suggested that some people do their best work under pressure: for example, Captain “Sully” Sullenberger landed his stricken airliner on the Hudson River and Winston Churchill successfully led Britain through WWII.

A second group watched a video reinforcing the idea that stress is debilitating, while a third acted as a control.

The bankers reported back over a few weeks on their stress mindset, how they were doing at work and their levels of stress. The results showed that those who’d seen the ‘stress-is-enhancing’ video did develop a more positive stress mindset. This led to them reporting better performance at work and fewer psychological problems over the subsequent two weeks.

This suggests something as simple as a short video can start to change how you think about stress, at least in the short-term.

Another study by Crum et al. examined one possible mechanism for how a changed mindset might be beneficial. This found that people who tended to think stress was enhancing were more likely to want feedback. So, people who think positively about stress are likely to use that to help them solve problems.

In addition, thinking that stress is enhancing was associated with lower levels of cortisol, a hormone closely associated with the stress response. In other words, people’s physiological reaction to stress was better when they endorsed the idea that stress is enhancing.

So, is stress good or bad for you? This evidence underlines the fact that, as so often, what you believe influences how both mind and body reacts.

Image credit:

Classifying Madness: Criticisms and Alternatives


Over the years, Vincent van Gogh’s mental illness has been classified in 30 different ways by over 150 different physicians, not just those who originally treated him. It is becoming clear that, in the classification of madness, this is far from an isolated example. Amongst the ranks of both psychiatrists and clinical psychologists are those who argue for a radical rethink.

Continue reading “Classifying Madness: Criticisms and Alternatives”

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