A Strong Working Memory Leaves Less Time for Negative Thoughts

A new study looks at how a stronger working memory can reduce depression.


When you’re thinking about something and recalling items from your memory that your “thought engine” needs, you’re using your “working memory.” Working memory has replaced short-term memory as a construct, but it remains the case that these are memories you hold onto only for as long as you need them for your current thought process. Now research suggests that working memory plays a role in one’s outlook: People with a greater ability to process information tend to be able to block out negative influences, while others are more likely to become depressed.

The study by associate professor of psychology at the University of North Florida Dr. Tracy Alloway in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology is one of the first to consider the interplay between working memory and one’s emotional disposition.

Alloway told newswise, “There is a growing body of research supporting the role of working memory in emotional regulation. We know that those with clinical depression have difficulties in suppressing irrelevant negative information, while those with high working memory are able to ignore negative emotions. But we wanted to investigate whether you see a similar pattern in healthy adults across the lifespan.”

 

Thinking (WITHBEAUTIFUL)

To that end, Alloway and grad student John Horton studied 2,000 volunteers, ranging in age from 16 to 79 years old and from a broad demographic background.

Other researchers’ working-memory tests have involved remembering happy/sad/etc. faces, so Alloway and Horton devised their own test using shapes that carry with them no implicit emotional charge. Subjects had to remember shapes displayed briefly, as well their colors and positions in a 4-by-4 grid. Testing began with a single circle and increased in numbers and variations until the subject failed in three out of four memory-test rounds.

The volunteers were next sorted into optimist/pessimist categories using the Life Orientation Test (LOT), which asks subjects to rate their agreement or disagreement with a series of statements:

1.  In uncertain times, I usually expect the best. 

2.  It's easy for me to relax. 

3.  If something can go wrong for me, it will. 

4.  I'm always optimistic about my future. 

5.  I enjoy my friends a lot. 

6.  It's important for me to keep busy. 

7.  I hardly ever expect things to go my way. 

8.  I don't get upset too easily. 

9.  I rarely count on good things happening to me. 

10.  Overall, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad.

Finally, the volunteers were assessed for depression using the Rumination Reflection Scale.

Putting the pieces together, Alloway’s study saw a correlation between those with a stronger working memory and a sense of optimism. Their conclusion is that a solid working memory helps people focus on achieving a positive outcome, ignoring negative thoughts. ““Human behavior is goal-directed and when we face an impediment to achieving a goal, we can respond with either a pessimistic outlook or an optimistic one,” Alloway says.

Solving a problem (JACOB BØTTER)

Since this study looked at such a broad range of people, she asserts, “A strong working memory can counter a pessimistic outlook. This is good news, especially for younger individuals (teens and those in their 20s), who had higher pessimism scores compared to their older peers.”

Psychology Today defines working memory as, “the memory you can consciously hold in your mind at any one instant—such as a phone number you just looked up. Most people can only hold about four totally independent items in their working memory.” Fortunately, they also provide methods for strengthening your own.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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