Scientists Find Out How Hope Protects the Brain
Since hope appears to come from a physical place in the brain, scientists are hoping to figure out how it shields the rest of the brain from negativity. Really.
In a recent study, Chinese psychologists found out that hope protects the brain against anxiety and expanded our understanding of how that may be happening. Because hope is considered a stable personality trait, they reasoned, they might be able to figure out where in the brain they can find hope functioning. They were able not only to pinpoint where hope might potentially reside within the brain, but realized how hope may be shielding the brain from the effects of anxiety.
The scientists defined hope as an important topic in positive psychology, referring to an individual's “goal-oriented expectations" that include both agency (desire to achieve goals) and pathways (finding ways to achieve them).
The researchers used fMRI imaging on 231 high school students from Chengdu, China who were tested according to questionnaires using the DHS hope scale and the Stait-Trait Anxiety test.
The scientists analyzed the data using the fractional amplitude of low-frequency fluctuation (fALFF) approach. They found that the presence of the hope trait was related to lower fALFF values in the bilateral medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC) area of the brain. That is the region involved in reward-related procession, the production of motivation, solving problems and goal-oriented behavior, according to the scientists.
The orbitofrontal cortex is located just above the orbits of the eyes and goes back several centimeters into the frontal base of the brain. The scientists discovered that the hope trait worked as a “mediator" between mOFC activity and anxiety.
"Overall, this study provides the first evidence for functional brain substrates underlying trait hope and reveals a potential mechanism that trait hope mediates the protective role of spontaneous brain activity against anxiety," write the researchers.
Orbitofrontal Cortex. Credit: Paul Wicks, Wikipedia
This is the first evidence that hope may have a physical presence in the brain, but the relationship between hope and anxiety has been established in a number of previous studies. A 2002 University of Kansas study, led by C.R. Snyder, looked at the role hope plays for students. The researchers found that students low in hope had greater anxiety, primarily from establishing goals that were too overwhelming and hard to achieve.
A 2011 study from Malaysian and Hong Kong scientists showed the link between having greater hope and reduced anxiety and depression in cancer patients. It was not clear, however, whether hope caused less anxiety or people with less anxiety were more hopeful.
Here you can check out the 2017 study that involved researchers from Sichuan University, Southwest University for Nationalities and Chengdu Mental Health Center in Chengdu, China.
What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.
- Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
- Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
- Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Great ideas in philosophy often come in dense packages. Then there is where the work of Marcus Aurelius.
- Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
- Written as a series of notes to himself, the book is much more readable than the dry philosophy most people are used to.
- The advice he gave to himself 2,000 years ago is increasingly applicable in our hectic, stressed-out lives.
Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.
- New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
- Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
- The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.
Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.
The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.
The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.
Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.
"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."
University of Colorado Boulder
This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.
Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.
The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.
Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.
What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.
"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."
Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.
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