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Can We Train Away Schizophrenic Symptoms?
The right brain training regimen that harnessed the brain’s natural plasticity and helped to strengthen these specific cognitive systems might help.
Schizophrenia is a complex and devastating psychiatric disorder that affects approximately one percent of people in the United States. It is best known for its outward symptoms: hallucinations, delusions and, at its most severe, psychosis. But schizophrenia’s associated cognitive deficits, including poor memory, attention, and decision-making abilities, are not only the earliest symptoms to appear but also the most resistant to current drug treatments. Now researchers at the University of California, San Francisco have demonstrated that computer-based cognitive training may help people with schizophrenia overcome those cognitive deficits and better monitor reality—and perhaps prevent the disease's progression.
Traditionally, schizophrenia is treated with antipsychotic medications like Haloperidol, but these drugs do not alleviate all symptoms and also have harsh side effects. Antipsychotic drugs treat only the most glaring symptoms of psychosis and have very little effect on cognitive problems that also accompany the disorder, says Li-Huei Tsai, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.
“We’re learning that the cognitive aspect of the disease, problems with memory and attention, manifest much earlier in patients than psychosis,” says Tsai. “But most individuals are not diagnosed without psychosis. It can make treatment difficult.”
Sophia Vinogradov, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), wondered, given the early onset of cognitive symptoms, whether treating those directly might work better. People with schizophrenia have trouble with “reality monitoring,” or synching their internal thoughts and feelings with the reality of the outside world. This lack of reality monitoring, as well as deficits in medial prefrontal cortex activation (mPFC), is linked to later psychosis. Perhaps by strengthening cognitive abilities, Vinogradov hypothesized, schizophrenics could better differentiate between internal thoughts and outside reality and reduce their vulnerability to psychotic episodes.
“In order to make the distinction between what’s really happening in the outside world versus what’s being generated by your own internal experiences accurately, the various cognitive information systems in your brain have to work very well together,” says Vinogradov. “You have to take in outside information, record it accurately and with a high degree of fidelity. You have to be able to monitor your internal thoughts, recognize they’re occurring internally, and remember them. Then you have to compare the inside with the outside. In a healthy brain, this happens without us even being aware of it. But in schizophrenia, the brain systems responsible for those kind of systems aren’t working very well at all.”
She hypothesized that the right brain training regimen that harnessed the brain’s natural plasticity and helped to strengthen these specific cognitive systems might help.
Vinogradov partnered with Michael Merzenich, a professor emeritus at UCSF and founder of PositScience, a company that provides brain training products, to create the video-game-like training program. Merzenich says that the training regimen is similar to PositScience’s flagship product, a program designed to promote healthy cognition as we grow older, but has been streamlined to focus on specific cognitive issues observed in schizophrenia.
“The tasks help improve perceptual and cognitive abilities both in language and in vision,” he says. “And the program also trains them explicitly in aspects of cognitive control. We also added several exercise strategies that we think will improve social cognitive abilities.”
Vinogradov and colleagues then compared a group of 16 people with schizophrenia who used the PositScience program for 80 hours over 4 months to a control group of 15 schizophrenics who played non-targeted video games for the same amount of time. They found that the training group showed significant improvement in reality monitoring tasks as well as increased mPFC activity—even six months after completing the training program. Participants in the training program also showed improved social functioning. The study appeared in the Feb. 23 issue of Neuron.
“Our data from earlier studies suggested that reality monitoring had strong contributions from more basic cognitive processes, but we were surprised at how strong the results in this study were,” she says. “But it shows that training can work—and it can work in ways that may have even more benefits than we originally suspected.”
Vinogradov cautions that while this approach is still in its infancy, the results suggest that the right computer-based training could work to bolster traditional drug treatments. She hopes further research will show that an initial intensive training program, with occasional booster sessions after completion, can help people with schizophrenia maintain jobs, avoid psychotic episodes, and improve their quality of day-to-day life. More ambitiously, she hopes that cognitive training may help those at high risk for schizophrenia avoid the disease altogether.
“The characteristic cognitive impairments of schizophrenia occur very early on in the disease,” she says. “We hypothesize that if we can improve cognitive systems through intensive computerized cognitive training then we may be able to reduce the risk of conversions prior to or during that first episode of psychosis.” Her laboratory is currently at work on a study testing the idea.
While Merzenich emphasizes that cognitive training cannot now replace medication, he also has high hopes for training paradigms. “I think this is going to revolutionize the treatment of this condition,” he says. “Ultimately, training—training that can correct the brain neurologically—is going to have more and more of a role to play.”
Tsai agrees that cognitive training is an intriguing new approach. “These are exciting results—and training may also help other disorders like phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder,” she says. “But the sample size is still quite small. We need to see how reproducible it is in larger populations before we draw any conclusions. But it’s possible that this kind of training is going to have great importance in future medicine.”
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Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>
Takeaway<p>The study, say its authors, "should be of interest to WADA and anyone who is interested in equal opportunities in competitive sports." Its results clearly support vigilance, with the report concluding: "The use of β2-agonists in athletes should be regulated and limited to those with an asthma diagnosis documented with objective tests."</p>
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.