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A Social Aspect to the Inheritance of Differing Behaviors of Men and Women
8/15/2017

New study from Melbourne, Exeter and Tel Aviv Universities suggests gender-specific behaviors can be inherited from social environment, not just from genetics

The different ways men and women behave, passed down from generation to generation, can be inherited from our social environment — not just from genes, according to a new study.

Rather than the sexes acting differently because of genetic inheritance, the human environment and culture allow for the transfer of some gender-specific behavior traits from generation to generation. New advances in evolutionary theory, and current models of how sex influences the brain, suggest that the interactions between the genetic and hormonal components of sex, along with other factors, create variability between individuals for some gender-related traits, while environmental factors supply the stable conditions needed for the reproduction of those traits in each generation.

The study was conducted by Prof. Cordelia Fine of the University of Melbourne, Prof. John Dupré of the University of Exeter and Prof. Daphna Joel from Tel Aviv University. It was recently published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

These two important shifts in scientific thinking point to the possibility that gender roles examined across different generations are sometimes best explained in terms of inherited socio-environmental conditions. "Even in non-human mammals, adaptive traits that have reliably developed in offspring for thousands of years can disappear within a few generations, if the relevant environmental conditions change," said Prof. Dupré.

"Genetic inheritance continues to be critical for the capacity to quickly learn an adaptive behavior, but environmental factors that are stable over generations remove any selective pressure for the development of parallel genetic mechanisms," Prof. Dupré observed.

The researchers studied recent thinking from evolution theory and recent findings from studies of the relations between sex and the brain for the study.

As part of another study, Prof. Joel and colleagues found that human brains are composed of unique mosaics of features, some more common in one sex than in the other.

"Masculine and feminine behaviors cannot be explained by the existence of male and female brains, as has previously been suggested," Prof. Joel said. "Our research suggests that intergenerational inheritance of gender-specific traits may be better explained by highly stable features of the social environment."

The article says non-genetic mechanisms may be particularly important in humans because our culture strongly encourages us to have male or female roles. The enormous human capacity to learn also allows for information to be passed from generation to generation.

"We need to question the pervasive assumption that it is always biological sex, via its direct action on the brain, that does the 'heavy lifting' when it comes to the gender traits we inherit and display," Prof. Fine said.

The Brain Mechanism Behind Multitasking
6/21/2017

The brief reactivation of a learned memory can block interference from competing tasks, TAU researchers say

Although "multitasking" is a popular buzzword, research shows that only 2% of the population actually multitasks efficiently. Most of us just shift back and forth between different tasks, a process that requires our brains to refocus time and time again — and reduces overall productivity by a whopping 40%.

New Tel Aviv University research identifies a brain mechanism that enables more efficient multitasking. The key to this is "reactivating the learned memory," a process that allows a person to more efficiently learn or engage in two tasks in close conjunction.

"The mechanism may have far-reaching implications for the improvement of learning and memory functions in daily life," said Dr. Nitzan Censor of TAU's School of Psychological Sciences and Sagol School of Neuroscience. "It also has clinical implications. It may support rehabilitation efforts following brain traumas that impact the motor and memory functions of patients, for example."

The research, conducted by TAU student Jasmine Herszage, was published in Current Biology.

Training the brain

"When we learn a new task, we have great difficulty performing it and learning something else at the same time. For example, performing a motor task A (such as performing a task with one hand) can reduce performance in a second task B (such as performing a task with the other hand) conducted in close conjunction to it. This is due to interference between the two tasks, which compete for the same brain resources," said Dr. Censor. "Our research demonstrates that the brief reactivation of a single learned memory, in appropriate conditions, enables the long-term prevention of, or immunity to, future interference in the performance of another task performed in close conjunction."

The researchers first taught student volunteers to perform a sequence of motor finger movements with one hand, by learning to tap onto a keypad a specific string of digits appearing on a computer screen as quickly and accurately as possible. After acquiring this learned motor memory, the memory was reactivated on a different day, during which the participants were required to briefly engage with the task — this time with an addition of brief exposure to the same motor task performed with their other hand. By utilizing the memory reactivation paradigm, the subjects were able to perform the two tasks without interference.

By uniquely pairing the brief reactivation of the original memory with the exposure to a new memory, long-term immunity to future interference was created, demonstrating a prevention of interference even a month after the exposures.

"The second task is a model of a competing memory, as the same sequence is performed using the novel, untrained hand," said Dr. Censor. "Existing research from studies on rodents showed that a reactivation of the memory of fear opened up a window of several hours in which the brain was susceptible to modifications — in which to modify memory.

"In other words, when a learned memory is reactivated by a brief cue or reminder, a unique time-window opens up. This presents an opportunity to interact with the memory and update it — degrade, stabilize or strengthen its underlying brain neural representations," Dr. Censor said. "We utilized this knowledge to discover a mechanism that enabled long-term stabilization, and prevention of task interference in humans.

The researchers are eager to understand more about this intriguing brain mechanism. "Is it the result of hardwired circuitry in the brain, which allows different learning episodes to be integrated? And how is this circuitry represented in the brain? By functional connections between distinct brain regions? It is also essential to determine test whether the identified mechanism is relevant for other types of tasks and memories, not only motor tasks," Dr. Censor concluded.

Study Finds Disruptive Children Do Not Inspire Similar Behavior in Their Siblings
3/6/2017

Siblings are more likely to learn how not to behave, say TAU researchers

A new Tel Aviv University study published in Child Development finds that the disruptive behavior of an individual child does not encourage similar behavior in their brothers and sisters.

On the contrary, Dr. Ella Daniel of TAU's Jaime and Joan Constantiner School of Education finds that siblings, predominantly older siblings, of disruptive children tend to exhibit less disorderly behavior over time. The research, conducted in collaboration with Dr. Jennifer Jenkins and colleagues at the University of Toronto and funded by the Canadian Institute for Health Research, examines the role of sibling training on disruptive behavior during early childhood and concludes that disruptive behavior produces greater disparity — rather than resemblance — among siblings.

"The development of disruptive behavior in early childhood is extremely important, as disruptive behavior starts early in life and behavioral patterns may become stable and resistant to influence later on," Dr. Daniel says. "We found that in early childhood, children do not learn from each other how to be disruptive, violent or disobedient.

"In fact, they are more likely to learn what not to do, or how not to behave. The older siblings of young children who are disruptive tend to become less disruptive themselves over time, creating a polarizing effect on their behaviors."

Focusing on younger children

Existing research on disruptive behavior is largely focused on adolescents. The new study harnessed data assessing the rate of disruptions as witnessed by both parents to track 916 toddlers and their preschool- and school-aged siblings in some 400 families in and around Toronto.

The families examined had given birth to an infant between 2006 and 2008, and had at least one other child (younger than four years of age) at home. The researchers conducted observations and interviews with the family, including all the siblings in the family, every 18 months.

The scientists collected information when the youngest child in the family was 18, 36 and 54 months old. On these three occasions, both parents reported the disruptive behaviors of each of their children. Using advanced statistical models, the researchers were able to identify the role of siblings in the development of each child's disruptive behavior over time, taking into account heredity, parenting, social environment and shared history.

"The study teaches us that we have little to worry about one sibling being 'a bad influence' on their brothers or sisters," says Dr. Daniel. "Instead, we should be more worried of pigeon holing: that one child will be labeled as a 'black sheep,' and that all children in the family will develop based on pre-assigned roles. We should let each child develop his or her individuality, which naturally changes over time."

The researchers are currently examining the role of siblings in the development of childhood depression and anxiety.

New Virtual Reality Technology May Improve Motor Skills in Damaged Limbs
12/14/2016

Novel training may rehabilitate impaired limbs by allowing healthy limbs to lead "by example," say TAU researchers

A combination of traditional physical therapy and technology may improve the motor skills and mobility of an impaired hand by having its partner, more mobile hand lead by example through virtual reality training, new Tel Aviv University research suggests.

"Patients suffering from hemiparesis — the weakness or paralysis of one of two paired limbs — undergo physical therapy, but this therapy is challenging, exhausting, and usually has a fairly limited effect," said lead investigator Prof. Roy Mukamel of TAU's School of Psychological Sciences and Sagol School of Neuroscience, who conducted the research with his student Ori Ossmy. "Our results suggest that training with a healthy hand through a virtual reality intervention provides a promising way to repair mobility and motor skills in an impaired limb." The research was published in Cell Reports.

Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing?

53 healthy participants completed baseline tests to assess the motor skills of their hands, then strapped on virtual reality headsets that showed simulated versions of their hands. The virtual reality technology, however, presented the participants with a "mirror image" of their hands — when they moved their real right hand, their virtual left hand would move.

In the first experiment, participants completed a series of finger movements with their right hands, while the screen showed their "virtual" left hands moving instead. In the next, participants placed motorized gloves on their left hands, which moved their fingers to match the motions of their right hands. Again, the headsets presented the virtual left hands moving instead of their right hands.

The research team found that when subjects practiced finger movements with their right hands while watching their left hands on 3D virtual reality headsets, they could use their left hands more efficiently after the exercise. But the most notable improvements occurred when the virtual reality screen showed the left hand moving while in reality the motorized glove moved the hand.

Tricking the brain

"We effectively tricked the brain," said Prof. Mukamel.

"Technologically, these experiments were a big challenge," Prof. Mukamel continued. "We manipulated what people saw and combined it with the passive, mechanical movement of the hand to show that our left hand can learn even when it is not moving under voluntary control."

The researchers are optimistic that this research could be applied to patients in physical therapy programs who have lost the strength or control of one hand. "We need to show a way to obtain high-performance gains relative to other, more traditional types of therapies," said Prof. Mukamel. "If we can train one hand without voluntarily moving it and still show significant improvements in the motor skills of that hand, we've achieved the ideal."

The researchers are currently examining the applicability of their novel VR training scheme to stroke patients.

Computerized Training Program from TAU Cuts Soldiers' Risk of PTSD
7/7/2016

Training targets innocuous "threats" before combat to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder

Computerized attention training may prevent the flare-up of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in soldiers exposed to combat, according to a new study from researchers at Tel Aviv University.

Attention bias modification training (ABMT) — a computerized intervention — was used to help soldiers attend to pre-combat threats, reducing the risk of PTSD outbreaks post-combat, said Prof. Yair Bar-Haim of TAU's School of Psychological Sciences and Sagol School of Neuroscience, who led the research team. Four sessions of ABMT designed to enhance threat monitoring in soldiers, delivered during basic training and prior to combat deployment, mitigated the risk of PTSD following combat exposure by two-thirds.

The study was carried out in collaboration with the Israel Defence Forces, the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, and the National Institutes of Health. The results were published in Psychological Medicine.

Focusing on a single factor

"Individuals with PTSD may exhibit alertness and hyper-excitability, the tendency to avoid threats, and an uncontrollable re-experiencing of traumatic events," Prof. Bar-Haim said. "But there is one common factor related to PTSD that emerged from our studies with soldiers over the years: a difficulty to monitor and assess potential threats.

"In 2008, we followed large groups of infantry soldiers, from basic training to actual combat. We found that soldiers who avoided potential threats presented to them on a computer screen were at greater risk for developing post-traumatic stress syndrome after actual combat.

"One would think that a combat soldier would be more attentive to external threats than a person walking down the street," said Prof. Bar-Haim. "However, psychologically, a soldier who avoids threat-processing is more likely to develop post-traumatic symptoms. Our 'threat attentional-training' facilitates protective forms of threat-processing during combat by countering inappropriate threat-avoidance patterns."

The program is now being prepared for full-scale implementation by the IDF. If the results are replicated in US troops, the US Army may follow suit. Other at-risk populations may also benefit, such as first responders like policemen and firefighters, Prof. Bar-Haim noted.

Cutting PTSD by two-thirds

719 IDF soldiers aged 18–27 years were assigned to one of two groups. The first underwent the attention bias modification training (ABMT); the second received no training at all. Symptoms of PTSD were measured at the start of the study period, at a six-month check-up, ten days following combat exposure, and four months following combat. Results showed that soldiers who trained with the ABMT protocol presented only a third of the risk to develop PTSD following combat relative to soldiers who had received no training.

The established efficacy of ABMT in the current study, the large population at elevated risk, and the low dissemination costs of ABMT warrant research into larger-scale application, said Prof. Bar-Haim. "Our data also suggest that the effects of ABMT can last up to fourteen months following initial training," said Prof. Bar-Haim. He is currently working closely with the IDF on large-scale implementation of the program in the Israeli army.

New Study Shows We Are Bad Judges of Friendship
5/5/2016

TAU researchers find inability to determine who our real friends are limits our powers of persuasion

Most of us think that friendship is a two-way street — but that's true only half the time, according to research from Tel Aviv University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Their new joint study says only half of your buddies would consider you their own friend. People have a very poor perception of friendship ties, and this limits their ability to influence their "friends," according to the research, published in PLoS One on March 22, 2016.

If researchers can understand this limitation, companies and social groups that depend on social influence for collective action, information dissemination and product promotion could improve their strategies and interventions.

A friend indeed?

"It turns out that we're very bad at judging who our friends are," says Dr. Erez Shmueli, who conducted the study with Dr. Laura Radaelli, both of TAU's Department of Industrial Engineering, in collaboration with Prof. Alex Pentland and Abdullah Almatouq of MIT. "And our difficulty determining the reciprocity of friendship significantly limits our ability to engage in cooperative arrangements. We learned that we can't rely on our instincts or intuition. There must be an objective way to measure these relationships and quantify their impact."

The researchers conducted extensive social experiments and analyzed the data from other studies to determine the percentage of reciprocal friendships and their impact on human behavior. The team also examined six friendship surveys from some 600 students in Israel, Europe and the United States to assess friendship levels and expectations of reciprocity.

They then developed an algorithm that examines several objective features of a perceived friendship (that is, the number of common friends or the total number of friends) and is able to distinguish between the two different kinds of friendship: unidirectional or reciprocal.

"We found that 95 percent of participants thought that their relationships were reciprocal," Dr. Shmueli says. "If you think someone is your friend, you expect him to feel the same way. But in fact that's not the case — only 50 percent of those polled matched up in the bidirectional friendship category."

A matter of influence

Why is this important? According to Dr. Shmueli, influence is the name of the game.

"Reciprocal relationships are important because of social influence," says Dr. Shmueli, who utilized the "FunFit" social experiment in the course of the research. "In this experiment that analyzes different incentives for exercising, we found that friendship pressure far outweighed money in terms of motivation. We found, not surprisingly, that those pressured by reciprocal friends exercised more and enjoyed greater progress than those with unilateral friendship ties."

The researchers found that their "friendship algorithm" determined with an extremely high level of accuracy the reciprocal or unidirectional nature of a friendship. "Our algorithm not only tells us whether a friendship is reciprocal or not. It also determines in which direction the friendship is 'felt' in unilateral friendships," Dr. Shmueli says.

Lack of Sleep Tampers with Your Emotions
12/8/2015

TAU study pinpoints neural mechanism responsible for impaired neutrality due to sleep loss

Cranky or grumpy after a long night? Your brain's ability to regulate emotions is probably compromised by fatigue. This is bad news for 30 percent of American adults who get less than six hours of sleep per night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A new Tel Aviv University study has identified the neurological mechanism responsible for disturbed emotion regulation and increased anxiety due to only one night's lack of sleep. The research reveals the changes sleep deprivation can impose on our ability to regulate emotions and allocate brain resources for cognitive processing.

The research was led by Prof. Talma Hendler of TAU's Sagol School of Neuroscience, Sackler Faculty of Medicine, and School of Psychological Sciences, and conducted by TAU graduate student Eti Ben-Simon at the Center for Brain Functions at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center. It was published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Nothing is neutral any more?

"Prior to our study, it was not clear what was responsible for the emotional impairments triggered by sleep loss," said Prof. Hendler. "We assumed that sleep loss would intensify the processing of emotional images and thus impede brain capacity for executive functions. We were actually surprised to find that it significantly impacts the processing of both neutral and emotionally-charged images.

"It turns out we lose our neutrality. The ability of the brain to tell what's important is compromised. It's as if suddenly everything is important," she said.

For the purpose of the study, Ben-Simon kept 18 adults awake all night to take two rounds of tests while undergoing brain mapping (fMRI and/or EEG), first following a good night's sleep and the second following a night of lack of sleep in the lab. One of the tests required participants to describe in which direction small yellow dots moved over distracting images. These images were "positively emotional" (a cat), "negatively emotional" (a mutilated body), or "neutral" (a spoon).

When participants had a good night's rest, they identified the direction of the dots hovering over the neutral images faster and more accurately, and their EEG pointed to differing neurological responses to neutral and emotional distractors. When sleep-deprived, however, participants performed badly in the cases of both the neutral and the emotional images, and their electrical brain responses, as measured by EEG, did not reflect a highly different response to the emotional images. This pointed to decreased regulatory processing.

"It could be that sleep deprivation universally impairs judgment, but it is more likely that a lack of sleep causes neutral images to provoke an emotional response," said Ben-Simon.

Losing a sense of proportion

The researchers conducted a second experiment testing concentration levels. Participants were shown neutral and emotional images while performing a task demanding their attention while ignoring distracting background pictures with emotional or neutral content — the depression of a key or button at certain moments — while inside an fMRI scanner. This time researchers measured activity levels in different parts of the brain as they completed the cognitive task.

The team found that participants after only one night of lack of sleep were distracted by every single image (neutral and emotional), while well-rested participants were only distracted by emotional images. The effect was indicated by activity change in the amygdala, a major limbic node responsible for emotional processing in the brain.

"We revealed a change in the emotional specificity of the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with detection and valuation of salient cues in our environment, in the course of a cognitive task." said Prof. Hendler.

"These results reveal that, without sleep, the mere recognition of what is an emotional and what is a neutral event is disrupted. We may experience similar emotional provocations from all incoming events, even neutral ones, and lose our ability to sort out more or less important information. This can lead to biased cognitive processing and poor judgment as well as anxiety," said Prof. Hendler.

The new findings emphasize the vital role sleep plays in maintaining good emotional balance in our life for promoting mental health. The researchers are currently examining how novel methods for sleep intervention (mostly focusing on REM sleep) may help reduce the emotional dysregulation seen in anxiety, depression, and traumatic stress disorders.

Mars Vs. Venus? Not So, Says Tel Aviv University Researcher
12/2/2015

Prof. Daphna Joel finds brains cannot be divided into gender-based categories

Are the brains of men and women truly different? Not if you look at the overall structure, a new Tel Aviv University study says.

Some features of the brain are more common in women, some more common in men, and some are common in both. But while specific parts of the brain reveal differences based on gender, an individual brain only rarely has exclusively "male" or "female" traits, according to Prof. Daphna Joel of TAU's School of Psychological Sciences, the lead investigator of the study published on Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Prof. Joel and her team of researchers used MRI scans of more than 1,400 brains, focusing on anatomical traits like tissue thickness or weight in different parts of the brain. They focused on those traits that showed the most obvious gender differences, dividing the scores into a predominantly male zone, a predominantly female zone, and an intermediate range.

The researchers found that individual brains rarely ended up exclusively in one of the three categories. The researchers also analyzed psychological and behavioral scores from two prior studies covering more than 5,000 participants. The results were similar.

Overall, the results show "human brains do not belong to one of [the] two distinct categories" of male and female, the researchers concluded.

For more, read the story in The New York Times, "Male vs. Female Brain? Not a Valid Distinction, Study Says."

Poor Infant Sleep May Predict Problematic Toddler Behavior
10/8/2015

TAU study finds frequent night wakings, broken sleep patterns are linked to trouble later on

Temper tantrums and misbehavior, restlessness and inattention are the trappings of the typical toddler. But they may also be signs of developmental delays or disorders. Are infant sleep irregularities red flags for later developmental difficulties?

A study recently published in Developmental Neuropsychology finds a definite link between poor infant sleep and compromised attention and behavior at the toddler stage. The research discovered that one-year-olds who experienced fragmented sleep were more likely to have difficulties concentrating and to exhibit behavioral problems at three and four years of age.

The research was led by Prof. Avi Sadeh of Tel Aviv University's School of Psychological Sciences and conducted by a team that included his TAU colleagues Yael Guri and Prof. Yair Bar-Haim; Dr. Gali De Marcas of the Gordon College of Education in Haifa; and Prof. Andrea Berger and Dr. Liat Tikotzky of Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

A predictor of future problems

"Many parents feel that, after a night without enough sleep, their infants are not at their 'best.' But the real concern is whether infant sleep problems — i.e. fragmented sleep, frequent night wakings — indicate any future developmental problems," said Prof. Sadeh. "The fact that poor infant sleep predicts later attention and behavior irregularities has never been demonstrated before using objective measures."

The team assessed the sleep patterns of infants at TAU's Laboratory for Children's Sleep Disorders, where Prof. Sadeh is director. The initial study included 87 one-year-olds and their parents. They revisited the lab when the infants were three to four years old. According to the study, "Night-wakings of self-soothing infants go unnoticed by their parents. Therefore, objective infant sleep measures are required when assessing the role of sleep consolidation or sleep fragmentation and its potential impact on the developing child."

To accomplish this, the researchers used wristwatch-like devices to objectively determine sleep patterns at the age of one, and in the follow-up visits they used a computerized attention test, the Spatial-Stroop task, to assess attentional executive control. They also referred to parental reports to determine signs of behavioral problems.

The results revealed significant predictive and concomitant correlations between infant sleep and toddler attention regulation and behavior problems. The study points to significant ties between sleep quality markers (sleep percentage and number of night wakings) at one year of age and attention and behavior regulation markers two to three years later.

Is it genetic?

"We don't know what the underlying causes are for the lower sleep quality and later behavior regulation problems in these children," said Prof. Sadeh. "There may be genetic or environmental causes adversely affecting both the children's sleep and their development in other domains. Our findings, however, support the importance of early diagnosis and treatment of sleep problems in infants and young children. Early interventions for infant sleep problems, very effective in improving sleep quality, could potentially improve later attention and behavior regulation."

The researchers are currently exploring the underlying characteristics of children who are considered "good sleepers" at the age of nine to 18 months.

Computerized Treatment May Combat PTSD Symptoms
7/30/2015

TAU, NIMH, and Creighton University researchers devise a computerized training program to curb debilitating syndrome for veterans

Some 10-15 percent of combat veterans struggle with wounds invisible to the naked eye: post-traumatic stress. Their lives are ridden with debilitating symptoms: insomnia, flashbacks, depression, anxiety, guilt, and ever-present tension. While there is no cure-all for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), cognitive behavioral therapy — which actively reprocesses traumatic events to reduce symptoms — has seen some success.

A new study from researchers at Tel Aviv University, Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, and the National Institute of Mental Health suggests an entirely new approach to treating PTSD. The research discusses a cutting-edge computer program capable of alleviating PTSD symptoms by reducing fluctuations in attention toward and away from perceived threats. The research was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry and led jointly by Dr. Yair Bar Haim, head of TAU's School of Psychological Sciences and director of TAU's Laboratory for Research on Anxiety and Trauma, Dr. Daniel Pine of the NIMH Emotion and Development Branch, and Dr. Amy Badura-Black of the Department of Psychology at Creighton University.

"This approach is entirely different from existing treatments," said Dr. Bar Haim. "Our approach is bottom–up. Our targets are basic, attention-level cognitive processes. We try to normalize and regulate this behavioral system by providing very simple computer tasks, retraining the neural network to better balance threat vigilance and avoidance.

"Our results were promising," Dr. Bar Haim reported. "The program produced a significant reduction in severe PTSD symptoms, with a similar success rate as cognitive behavioral therapy."

The human threat-monitoring system

According to Dr. Bar Haim, humans have a "threat monitoring system" which fluctuates all the time, generating responses to potential threats in the environment and nullifying reactions to non-threatening stimuli.

In the computer training program, two stimuli (threatening or neutral) appear on the screen, followed by a target (an arrow) pointing left or right. The researchers hope to retrain the participant's neural network to regain the balance between threat avoidance and threat vigilance. The treatment entailed four to eight sessions of computerized training, each of which lasted 10-15 minutes.

"In PTSD, the system is in disarray, with high fluctuations — between vigilance to threats on one hand and threat avoidance on the other," said Dr. Bar Haim. "Our promising new treatment for PTSD targets a neurocognitive mechanism to mediate that system, and change attention patterns that go in disarray. If you can influence this pattern, maybe you can affect other symptoms of PTSD."

The training implicitly teaches participants that threatening stimuli are irrelevant to performing a specific task, requiring them to attend equally to threatening and neutral stimuli. The study determined that the training program reduced symptoms by reducing this variability in attention.

A safety (Inter)net for vets?

For the purpose of the study, teams of researchers from TAU and Creighton University conducted parallel trials testing the program on US and Israeli combat veterans; the results in both groups were the same.

"Our cost-effective treatment could even one day be available over the Internet," said Dr. Bar Haim. "You would need a psychologist to diagnose you and monitor your treatment, but the therapy itself could be administered over the Internet or through short visits to the clinic."

The researchers are continuing to explore the effect of the program on larger samples in Israel and in the US.

Losing Streak: Competitive High-School Sports Linked to Gambling
5/11/2015

TAU research finds high-schoolers involved in competitive sports at higher risk of problem gambling

The soft signs of compulsive gambling — high energy levels, unreasonable expectations, extreme competitiveness, distorted optimism, and above-average IQs — are often the very traits that characterize competing athletes. However, precious little research is available on the prevalence of gambling among athletes and the relevant warning signs.

A new Tel Aviv University study published in The American Journal of Addictions indicates that high-schoolers involved in competitive sports are at an elevated risk of gambling. According to the research, led by Dr. Belle Gavriel-Fried of TAU's Bob Shapell School of Social Work and conducted by TAU student Idit Sherpsky, in collaboration with Dr. Israel Bronstein of Bar-Ilan University, the participation of male high-school students in competitive sports is associated with problem gambling and gambling frequency, and female students who participate in competitive sports are at a higher risk of gambling frequency.

"The drive to win underpins both gambling behavior and competitive sport," said Dr. Gavriel-Fried. "Most of the research within this area has been conducted on university athletes, but we wanted to dig deeper, find out whether the link between gambling and physical activities began earlier — before other co-factors emerge — and we found out that, in fact, it does."

For the study, the researchers asked 316 high-schoolers, aged 14-19, from four high schools in Israel to fill out questionnaires to establish their involvement in sports and their gambling habits. "Intensive exercise" was assessed on a frequency rating scale. "Competitiveness" was rated by the number of competitive sports engaged in over the previous year, including varsity or junior varsity sports and other extracurricular programs.

Winning vs. fitness

They found a significant difference between youths involved in intense cardiovascular activity (for the sake of exercise alone) and those participating in competitive sports. The latter were more often engaged in regulated lotteries and scratch cards, gambling on other sporting events, poker, and other card games.

"Studies conducted on college-age athletes in relation to gambling might be misleading, because the university environment itself has been found to promote risk behavior," said Dr. Gavriel-Fried. "Here we made a distinction between youths involved in competitive sport and those involved in intensive exercise. The objective of competitive sports is to win as a team, whereas the objective of intensive exercise is to maintain your health and fitness.

"There was a clear divide between the two groups. We hope that this study will redirect high schools to integrate gambling prevention programs for youths involved in competitive sports — in order to avoid sticking 'healthy heads in sick beds,' so to speak."

According to the researchers, due to their competitiveness, athletes as young as 14 should pay closer attention to the risks involved in "harmless" gambling practices, such as card games.

"For competitive athletes, there is an intrinsic impulse embedded within — to win, at all costs. This underpins gambling behavior as well," said Dr. Gavriel-Fried, who is currently researching high-risk behavior and addictions.

Personalizing Bipolar Disorder Treatment
4/22/2015

TAU researchers find insulin-like hormone increases lithium sensitivity in patients

Rapidly swinging from extremes of joy and energy to sadness, fatigue, and confusion, bipolar disorder (BD) patients feel desperate and largely alone in the world. And according to the National Institutes of Health, between 25-50 percent of the roughly 3% of Americans living with BD attempt suicide at least once. Lithium is among the most effective therapies for BD, and remains the first-line treatment even as other mood stabilizing drugs have become available. But about half of the patients prescribed lithium do not respond to the treatment.

A new Tel Aviv University study, published in the Journal of Molecular Neuroscience, may pave the way for improving the efficacy of lithium in these patients. The study found that the insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) hormone, known for its pivotal role in tissue growth, is also capable of increasing the lithium sensitivity of blood cells in bipolar disorder patients in whom lithium was originally ineffective.

The research was led by TAU postgraduate student Dr. Elena Milanesi under the guidance of Dr. David Gurwitz of the Department of Human Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry of TAU's Sackler Faculty of Medicine and Sagol School of Neuroscience and Dr. Noam Shomron of the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at TAU's Sackler Faculty of Medicine, in collaboration with Sackler graduate student Adva Hadar and Prof. Haim Werner of TAU's Sackler Faculty of Medicine, along with researchers in Italy and Germany.

A new hope

"Lithium has been considered the cornerstone in the management of bipolar disorder for over 50 years, even though half of patients do not sufficiently respond to chronic lithium treatment," said Dr. Gurwitz. "It is often prescribed as the first-line treatment for bipolar disorder. If it works, patients take it for years. If not, they have to explore alternatives which haven't proven as effective in long-term clinical studies."

The researchers examined the in vitro effects of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) on lithium sensitivity in blood cell lines of both lithium-responsive and non-responsive bipolar patients. They found that when IGF-1 was added to the cultured blood cells there was increased lithium sensitivity only in the blood cells of those bipolar disorder patients who did not respond to lithium therapy.

"Our study suggests that the lack of sufficient IGF-1 activity may underlie lithium resistance in the treatment of bipolar disorder, and this hormone, or drugs mimicking or promoting its action, should be considered for improved treatment of this disorder", says Dr. Milanesi.

"There are no established animal models for bipolar disorder, so it will be hard to test this idea in animals," Dr. Gurwitz added. "However, given that IGF-1 is approved for human use in people who are deficient in this hormone, a clinical trial of IGF-1 in lithium-resistant bipolar disorder patients is warranted."

The research on lithium resistance biomarkers was supported by the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF).

Shoulder to the Wheel: Parental Intervention Improves Teen Driving
1/14/2015

TAU researcher's two-pronged strategy found to reduce risks involved in adolescent driving

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of teenage death in America. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seven 16- to 19-year-olds die every day as a result of injuries incurred from road crashes. But attempts to address the problem through legislation and technological innovation have yielded limited results.

Now a new study by TAU researchers proposes a two-pronged strategy of vigilant parental intervention and monitoring technology to improve the safety of young drivers on the road. The research, published recently in the Journal of Adolescence, was led by Prof. Haim Omer of TAU's School of Psychological Sciences and conducted by Dr. Yaara Shimshoni, in collaboration with Or Yarok of the Association for Safer Driving in Israel.

"We have shown that it is possible to reduce dangerous driving in young drivers by increasing parental involvement in a positive way," said Prof. Omer. "Our program is based on a model of parental involvement called 'Vigilant Care,' shown to be effective in reducing risky behavior exhibited in other fields. According to this model, parents remain non-invasively involved in their youngsters' activities, but are poised to increase their level of involvement at the first signs of danger."

"Vigilant Care," emphasizing both parental intervention to reduce risky behavior as well as a nurturing environment in which to introduce the involvement, lies at the heart of the model of parental guidance. Prior to the study, some parents received training in Prof. Omer's program.

Learning from feedback

For the study, 242 families of adolescent drivers installed In-Vehicle Data Recorders (IVDRs) that monitor driving in real time and offer feedback on risk patterns in the cars. The families were then assigned to one of four groups that differed according to type of IVDR feedback and level of parental intervention: 1) IVDR feedback to the entire family that led to parental intervention through their "Vigilant Care" training; 2) IVDR feedback to the entire family that did not lead to parental intervention; 3) individual IVDR feedback without parental guidance; and 4) neither IVDR feedback nor parental involvement.

For example, a young driver would be required to send a text message to his parents upon arriving at his destination and once again before midnight. In this way, the parents were certain to remain on their son's mind, one of the protective mechanisms at the heart of "Vigilant Care." The parents would also hold "driving chats" with their son on a weekly basis, sitting together to plan trips to new destinations. In these ways, the novice driver was constantly reminded of his parents while driving. As one of the teens said, "I felt as though someone was sitting by my side, even though I was alone in the car."

From pre-teens to teens

"In past studies, 'Vigilant Care' has been shown to reduce risky behavior in many areas of child development," said Prof. Omer. "However, the difficult challenge here was to amend and apply the model to an older and normative population of young adults."

After following the teen drivers and the four groups for three months at a time, the researchers found that the drivers whose parents had received "Vigilant Care" training and who had also received family-wide IVDR feedback significantly improved their behavior behind the wheel. The combined technological monitoring plus intervention was found to be most effective for drivers who exhibited the riskiest behavior.

"We have shown that the combination of technology and 'Vigilant Care' can meet the challenge of dangerous teen driving," said Dr. Shimshoni. "This is the first study in which a systematic, theory-based intervention for parental involvement in teen driving was found to be effective."

Prof. Omer, together with Or Yarok, is currently adapting and extending the "Vigilant Care" intervention to address the needs of different populations.

To Life! Practicing Judaism Could Protect Against Suicide
10/2/2014

TAU finds secular Jewish teenagers twice as likely to have suicidal intentions as their more religious peers

In 1897, Emile Durkheim, the father of sociology, speculated that religion could protect against against suicidal impulses. In the century that followed, numerous studies attempted to either prop up or debunk this theory, focusing primarily on Christianity, which condemns suicide as the worst of sins.

For the first time, a study published in European Psychiatry approaches Durkheim's premise through the lens of Judaism. According to the research, conducted by Dr. Gal Shoval and Dr. Ben Amit of Tel Aviv University's Sackler School of Medicine and Clalit Health Service's Geha Mental Health Center, religious Jewish teens exhibit 45% less suicide-risk behavior, including attempted suicide, than their secular Jewish peers, suggesting that religious observance indeed helps protect Jewish adolescents against suicide.

"Death by suicide is one of the most common causes of death in the adolescent population, and it is potentially preventable," said Dr. Amit. "This has led us, like many other researchers, to try to better understand the reasons leading to adolescent suicide – to reduce its occurrence."

Coping and depression

In the U.S., suicide ranks behind only accidents and murder as a leading killer of 15-to-24 year-olds, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. Israel's suicide rate, on the other hand, is consistently among the lowest in the developed world.

"Using statistical tools, we demonstrated that the protective effect of the practice of Judaism was not associated with a decreased risk of depression. Instead, it enhanced effective coping mechanisms," said Dr. Amit. "This stands in direct contrast to studies of religious Christian teenagers who reported feeling less depressed than their secular peers. According to our study, religious Jewish teens appear less likely than secular ones to be at risk of suicide even though they are still likely to be depressed."

The researchers say the results could be explained by Judaism's spiritual and communal support — as well as its prohibition against suicide.

Support and insight for Jewish adolescents

The research was conducted using the Israeli Survey of Mental Health among Adolescents (ISMEHA) study from the Israeli Health Ministry. The survey consisted of home interviews of 620 Jewish adolescents (aged 14-17) and their mothers, assessing socio-demographic characteristics and mental health, including suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Participants were also asked to define their degree of religiosity as "secular," "observant," or "ultra-Orthodox," the three main categories of Judaism in Israel.

"Recognizing the risk factors and mechanisms associated with self-harm and suicide is important in the prevention of adolescent suicide. As this is the first study demonstrating a protective effect for religiosity against suicide in Jewish adolescents, we believe it may provide valuable insight for both clinicians and policymakers dealing with Jewish adolescents, in Israel and worldwide," said Dr. Amit.

According to the researchers, suicide and self-harm are highly complex behaviors which require further research to elucidate the mechanisms involved. The best way forward would combine both biological and psychological elements. "For many of these teens, suicide is simply about losing hope," said Dr. Shoval. "We know from working with suicide survivors that even when they were 99 percent sure they were going to kill themselves, they still sought hope. Jewish faith and community may be their most important source of hope."

Israeli Teens Pay a High Psychiatric Toll When Raised in Conditions of Geopolitical Conflict
7/24/2014

Unprecedented TAU research studies mental health consequences of long-term political violence on Israeli adolescents

The latest flare-up in the Middle East catches children in the midst of their long-anticipated summer break. The wail of sirens replaces the jingle of ice cream trucks, and boys and girls dash to a bomb shelter instead of playing tag at the park. Young people are enduring a summer of violence, devastation, panic, and isolation. What are the long-term effects of these conditions?

A new study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress by Prof. Michelle Slone of Tel Aviv University's School of Psychological Sciences and Dr. Anat Shoshani of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya finds that Israeli youths exposed to protracted conflict suffer far higher levels of anxiety, phobia, fear, depression, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, and paranoia than their counterparts in the U.S. The largest cross-sectional empirical study of its kind, the research assessed youths exposed to terrorism, missile attacks, war, forced residential relocations, and military operations, as well as relative quiet over an unprecedented period of 14 years.

"This was a large and logistically complicated study conducted over a long period under dynamic, violent conditions," said Prof. Slone, Director of TAU's Laboratory for Resilience in Childhood. "Whereas previous studies on conflict environments have focused on the frequency of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Post Traumatic Symptoms, our research pointed to varied emotional, cognitive, and behavioral symptoms, as well as a broad spectrum of clinical and sub-clinical pathologies."

Girls are at greatest risk

For the purposes of the study, annual samples from the same cities, geographical regions, and schools throughout the country were assessed for Political Life Events (PLE) exposure and for psychiatric symptoms using the Brief Symptom Inventory (BSI). Some 8,727 Jewish Israeli adolescents aged 12-17, evenly divided by gender, were assessed in eight exposure periods: pre-Intifada (1998-2000); Intifada peak (2001-2003); Intifada recession (2004); missile attacks on southern Israel and the 2006 Lebanon War (2005-2006); peak missile attacks (2006-2007); Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009); and the 9/11 period of global terrorism (2010-2011).

The research showed that, over this 14 year period, Israeli adolescents suffered from severe psychiatric symptoms and disorders. Adolescent girls reported even higher levels of psychiatric pathologies than adolescent boys, and the differential by gender increased according to direct exposure to conflict. This finding coincides with consistent findings of higher levels of pathology among girls than boys in wars and armed conflict.

"Growing up in South Africa under the Apartheid regime made me particularly sensitive to the effects of political conflict and armed conflict on children," said Prof. Slone. "Our study suggests that adolescents exposed to high levels of protracted political violence form a high-risk group for specific and non-specific pathologies."

Schools can step in

According to the researchers, insecure and conflict-ridden social environments disrupt the critical tasks normally completed during adolescence, including the establishment of personal identity and the search for both self-autonomy and a role in society. In light of her findings, Prof. Slone believes Israel's public health and education systems should address the needs of the nation's at-risk adolescent population.

"While there is no 'quick fix' for the significant psychological distress that becomes part of young people's lives in conditions of chronic violence and insecurity, a cost-effective, universal, and controlled therapeutic strategy must be implemented in schools," said Prof. Slone. "The educational system, which touches all children and adolescents across all demographic divides, stands in a unique position to institute preventive interventions that strengthen children's resilience and ability to cope with the violent environment in which they live."

Prof. Slone is currently examining the efficacy of school-based, teacher-delivered intervention programs.

No Rest for the Bleary
7/8/2014

TAU study says parents of newborns pay a high price for their interrupted sleep

The familiar cry in the night, followed by a blind shuffle to the crib, a feeding, a diaper change, and a final retreat back into oblivion — every hour on the hour. Such is the sleep pattern of most new parents, who report feeling more exhausted in the morning than when they went to bed the night before.

Now, in the first study of its kind, Prof. Avi Sadeh and a team of researchers from Tel Aviv University's School of Psychological Sciences explain why interrupted sleep can be as physically detrimental as no sleep at all. In the study, published in the journal Sleep Medicine, Prof. Sadeh and his colleagues Michal Kahn, Shimrit Fridenson, Reut Lerer, and Yair Ben-Haim establish a causal link between interrupted sleep patterns and compromised cognitive abilities, shortened attention spans, and negative moods. The researchers discovered that interrupted sleep is equivalent to no more than four consecutive hours of sleep.

"The sleep of many parents is often disrupted by external sources such as a crying baby demanding care during the night. Doctors on call, who may receive several phone calls a night, also experience disruptions," said Prof. Sadeh. "These night wakings could be relatively short — only five to ten minutes — but they disrupt the natural sleep rhythm. The impact of such night wakings on an individual’s daytime alertness, mood, and cognitive abilities had never been studied. Our study is the first to demonstrate seriously deleterious cognitive and emotional effects."

Putting Mom and Dad in a bad mood

"In the process of advising these parents, it struck me that the role of multiple night wakings had never been systematically assessed," said Prof. Sadeh, who directs a sleep clinic at TAU, where he advises exhausted and desperate parents on how to cope with their children's persistent night wakings. "Many previous studies had shown an association, but none had established a causal link. Our study demonstrates that induced night wakings, in otherwise normal individuals, clearly lead to compromised attention and negative mood."

The study was conducted on student volunteers at TAU's School of Psychological Sciences. Their sleep patterns were monitored at home using wristwatch-like devices that detected when they were asleep and when they were awake. The students slept a normal eight-hour night, then experienced a night in which they were awakened four times by phone calls and told to complete a short computer task before going back to sleep after 10-15 minutes of wakefulness. The students were asked each following morning to complete certain computer tasks to assess alertness and attention, as well as to fill out questionnaires to determine their mood. The experiment showed a direct link between compromised attention, negative mood, and disrupted sleep — after only one night of frequent interruptions.

Paying a high price

"Our study shows the impact of only one disrupted night," said Prof. Sadeh. "But we know that these effects accumulate and therefore the functional price new parents — who awaken three to ten times a night for months on end — pay for common infant sleep disturbance is enormous. Besides the physical effects of interrupted sleep, parents often develop feelings of anger toward their infants and then feel guilty about these negative feelings.

"Sleep research has focused in the last 50 years on sleep deprivation, and practically ignored the impact of night-wakings, which is a pervasive phenomenon for people from many walks of life. I hope that our study will bring this to the attention of scientists and clinicians, who should recognize the price paid by individuals who have to endure frequent night-wakings."

Prof. Sadeh is currently researching interventions for infant sleep disturbances to reduce the detrimental effects of disrupted sleep on parents.

For a Holistic Approach to POW Trauma
7/7/2014

TAU researcher cautions against psychological “tunnel vision” in treating prisoners of war like Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl

The full circumstances of U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl's captivity have yet to be revealed. During his tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2009, Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban and held in captivity for five years until a controversial prisoner exchange led to his release on May 31. Bergdahl has been accused of deserting his post and advocating the release of Afghani prisoners.

"We do know that he suffered horrific conditions, tortured and kept in a metal cage in darkness for weeks on end," said Prof. Zahava Solomon, an Israel Prize laureate, Professor of Social Work and Psychiatric Epidemiology at Tel Aviv University's School of Social Work, and head of the newly founded Center of Excellence for Mass Trauma Research, established by the Israel Science Foundation. "His identification with the enemy could be seen as a form of Stockholm Syndrome, according to which tortured individuals identify with their perpetrators and take on their beliefs as a means of survival and empowerment. In a way, it is reminiscent of victims of child abuse, who may identify with their parents and continue the cycle of abuse as adults themselves.

"On the other hand, maybe he really was a conscientious objector, as some have said, having high ideals and high morals, and he started to identify with the people he saw as victims — vulnerable locals in poor conditions," Prof. Solomon says. "It is impossible to say conclusively."

In a new study conducted with Dr. Sharon Dekel of Harvard University's Department of Psychiatry and slated for publication in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, Prof. Solomon examines the co-morbid effects of war captivity and war trauma on prisoners of war. While symptoms of psychological illness are often pigeon-holed as specific individual disorders, Prof. Solomon argues against a narrow "tunnel vision" in treating POWs such as Bergdahl, who remains in rehabilitation.

A uniquely large sample

Prof. Solomon's new study follows the progress of several hundred ex-prisoners of war captured by the Syrians and Egyptians in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, with a specific eye toward the co-morbid interplay between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depressive symptoms. These former combat soldiers were held captive for between one and nine months, interrogated under horrific conditions, electrocuted, raped, burned with cigarettes, told Israel had been conquered, and placed in solitary confinement.

Prof. Solomon has treated the same subjects — hundreds of Israel Defense Forces soldiers captured during Israel's 1973 Yom Kippur War — over more than 40 years. The POWs, their spouses, and their children were interviewed and observed at three specific points of time (1991, 2003, 2008) over 17 years, utilizing diagnostic tools and questionnaires. Two groups of combat veterans, 275 former prisoners of war (ex-POWS) and matched combatants (controls), were assessed.

Prof. Solomon found that while depression and PTSD seem to be different long-term manifestations of traumatic stress, they are both parts of a common general traumatic stress construct. "Despite the fact that they were released 40 years ago, these men feel and behave as if they are still in captivity," said Prof. Solomon. "With PTSD, they have recurrent nightmares, are startled easily by noise, triggered by anything in the news or media reminiscent of their experiences, abusive to their spouses and children, re-enact their trauma and are overprotective. Meanwhile, they also exhibit clear depressive symptoms."

No silver bullet

Statistical analysis from the study indicated that PTSD increased in ex-POWs over time, while it remained stable among traumatized ex-combatants. The researchers observed a clear relationship between PTSD and depression, with one disorder mediating the symptoms of the other at different points in time.

"The effect of psychological trauma is like cancer — it metastasizes," said Prof. Solomon. "You cannot treat a person only according to PTSD, an anxiety disorder, or depression, an effective disorder, because then the treatment itself becomes ineffective. Sometimes they overlap, but they are also quite different. This is a major challenge for clinicians, who must not be blinded or restricted by their textbook categories. There is no silver bullet, unfortunately, but it is crucial to treat people accurately and with sensitivity, according to current knowledge, and continue the research to enable more effective treatment."

Smartphone App May Revolutionize Mental Health Treatment
7/1/2014

New TAU technology provides professionals with immediate insight into behavioral patterns of patients

Mental illness accounts for 90 percent of all reported suicides and places the largest burden of any disease on social and economic infrastructures worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. There is a dire need for support services to assist clinicians in the evaluation and treatment of those suffering from mental illness.

New technology developed by researchers at Tel Aviv University is poised to transform the way in which patients with mental illnesses are monitored and treated by clinicians. Dr. Uri Nevo, research team engineer Keren Sela, and scientists from TAU's Faculty of Engineering and Sagol School of Neuroscience have developed a new smartphone-based system that detects changes in patients' behavioral patterns, and then transmits them to professionals in real time. It has the potential to greatly improve the response time and efficacy of clinical psychiatrists. By facilitating patient observation through smartphones, the technology also affords patients much-needed independence from hospitals, clinicians — and even family members.

Research on the application was presented in March at the Israel Society for Biological Psychiatry's annual conference. The project won funding from the Israeli Ministry of Economy and was recently chosen as one of four finalist start-up initiatives featured at Israel's leading Entrepreneurship and Innovation 8200 Accelerator Program. The team is currently in talks with other medical centers in Israel and overseas to expand clinical trials.

Using tools already "in the hand"

"The diagnosis of mental health disease is based only on behavioral patterns," said Dr. Nevo. "In some cases, a patient is discharged from the hospital into a vacuum, with no idea how to monitor his or her new state of mind. Because most people own smartphones today, we thought, 'Why not harness the smartphone, a reservoir of daily activities, to monitor behavioral patterns?'

"Bipolar disorder, for example, starts with a manic episode," said Dr. Nevo. "A patient who usually makes five or ten calls a day might suddenly start making dozens of calls a day. How much they talk, text, how many places they visit, when they go to bed and for how long — these are all indicators of mental health and provide important insights to clinicians who want to catch a disorder before it is full blown."

Researchers conducted two Helsinki-approved clinical trials with the cooperation and direction of leading psychiatrists from Geha Mental Health Center and Be'er Ya'acov Mental Health Center. In the trials, the application was installed on the smartphones of 20 patients suffering from bipolar, unipolar/depressive, or schizo-affective disorders, as well as on the phones of 20 healthy participants. Over the course of six months, the app acquired data from patients' phones and sent the information to distant computers, where advanced algorithms analyzed the data to detect changes in patients' sleep, communication, mobility, and vocal patterns. The researchers further developed a visualization system that displayed the summarized information to psychiatrists, providing them with instant insight into the behavioral trends of their patients.

Preserving patient privacy

According to Dr. Nevo, a patient using the app has full control over who has access to the behavioral patterns recorded and analyzed by it. "We take great care to protect the patient's privacy," said Dr. Nevo. "The content of calls and texts is completely ignored and never acquired or recorded, and any identifying parameters of the patient or of his contacts, are irreversibly masked and are obviously not used."

Psychiatrists in the trials reported that the system has already positively affected their interaction with patients, offering a useful objective "window" into the patient's daily routine. One patient who was involved in the clinical trial for only a brief period recently suffered a hospitalization. "If I had kept the app on my phone, you would have immediately noticed the unusual number of phone calls I was making, and this hospitalization could have been prevented," he told his psychiatrist.

"We have a way to go until such a system will be proven effective and adopted by the psychiatric community," said Dr. Nevo. "However, psychiatrists, as well as U.S. federal policymakers in the field, agree that such tools are necessary to improve psychiatric practice."

TAU and Columbia University Join Forces to Fight PTSD
6/26/2014

Hopeful Dawn Foundation sponsors joint effort to expand research, treatment, prevention, and education

Dr. Yair Bar Haim, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, head of the School of Psychological Sciences, and director of the Laboratory for Research on Anxiety and Trauma at Tel Aviv University, and Dr. Yuval Neria, a decorated war veteran and Professor of Medical Psychology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, will collaborate through the Hopeful Dawn Foundation to create state-of-the-art programs and a center to expand the research, treatment, prevention, and education for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the foundation recently announced.

Through the philanthropic support of the foundation, the new project will coordinate research activities to advance trauma related research, clinical care, and training. The collaboration will seek to develop innovative clinical interventions and prevention programs.

The announcement was made in June, which is PTSD Awareness Month.

An urgent need for research and intervention

"According to the Veterans Affairs Department, in the U.S. alone there are 22 veteran suicides per day — one every 80 minutes,” said Dr. Diana Kaplan, founder of The Hopeful Dawn Foundation. "The need for a solution is eminent, but we have yet to see a successful attempt to solve this matter.

"It is the Hopeful Dawn Foundation's mission to find a solution to this growing epidemic by creating a solution to aid the over 5.2 million veterans and civilians who have suffered trauma in the U.S. alone. Working with leading doctors in these areas while establishing programs and centers would help the suffering get the treatment they need without standing in line."

Prof. Bar-Haim, the designated director of the new Center on PTSD and Resilience at Tel Aviv University, said, "The collaborative project between Columbia University and Tel Aviv University symbolizes a Hopeful Dawn for research and clinical practice in PTSD." He added that "the new center will bring together world-renowned leaders in traumatic stress and resilience research from both universities to foster the development of cutting-edge treatments for veterans and civilians suffering from stress-related symptoms."

A much-needed nexus

The collaboration will provide a unique international forum for research to discover new knowledge related to the treatment of PTSD, establishing a base for the education of the medical and healthcare community as well as representatives of the military and political communities. In addition to the research and educational components, the center and the programs will include a multidisciplinary clinical team of psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists.

Experts will use evidence-based and novel treatment techniques with a focus on early identification and intervention of PTSD in both Israel and the U.S. Individuals identified as suffering from the complex symptomatology of PTSD will be helped with intensive and multi-faceted treatment modalities, with the goal of preventing further deterioration and eventual recovery. It will use evidence-based and novel treatment techniques with a focus on early identification and intervention of PTSD at both locations.

The Hopeful Dawn Foundation is a charitable organization dedicated to the research, prevention, and treatment of war veterans and other young adults who suffer from trauma, severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and other related psychiatric disorders. It aims to assist soldiers and civilian patients with rehabilitation and treatment in order to allow them to return to society as productive, active members of the community. Its Web site is located at http://www.hopefuldawnfoundation.org.

Making Sense of Our Senses
4/14/2014

TAU researcher's new book reveals how sensory interaction with the world influences decisions and behavior

Book cover: SensationHave you just fallen in love? Found the perfect job? Bought a shiny new car? You might attribute these judgements and decisions to a host of considered reasons and instincts, but you might also take a closer look at the beverage you drank, the chair you sat on, and shirt you wore today.

According to a new book by Prof. Thalma Lobel, director of The Adler Center for Research in Child Development and Psychopathology at Tel Aviv University's School of Psychological Sciences, our senses influence our decisions and behavior more than we can possibly imagine. Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence, published this month by Simon and Schuster, explores over 100 experiments in the modern science of embodied cognition conducted at universities around the world and concludes that sensual physical experiences unconsciously affect our everyday choices, and have profound implications for our lives.

"About five years ago, a research student of mine brought me a study conducted at Yale University," said Prof. Lobel. "The findings — that what we experience through our senses dramatically influences our decisions and behavior, without us being aware of it — were so unbelievable and surprising that I knew right then and there that this was an area I wanted to focus on in my own research."

Washing away a guilty conscience?

Prof. Lobel began conducting her own experiments in embodied cognition at TAU. In one study, Prof. Lobel examined the effect of cleanliness on cheating.

Her students approached men and women at the university gym locker room and asked them to fill out a general information questionnaire featuring some challenging, and at times unanswerable, questions. Two groups of participants — pre- and post-shower — were asked to fill out the survey. Afterwards, they were given an answer key and asked to correct their own papers, then write their final scores on a separate page — thus affording them ample opportunity to cheat.

The results of the experiment were clear: Those who showered cheated more than those still sweaty from their workout, who more often scored themselves appropriately.

"Our study confirmed that those who felt clean on the outside felt 'clean' enough on the inside to be able to falsify their test scores and report that they had correctly answered some of our impossible questions," said Prof. Lobel. "It was as if they felt a 'morality surplus' from the shower, as if they had moral character to spare and could therefore cheat."

Inner workings of the mind

While conducting her own research on the subject of physical intelligence, Prof. Lobel began examining and comparing similar studies from universities around the world. The findings — that holding a warm cup of coffee makes one friendlier, using a red typeface on tests leads to poor performance, seeing a light bulb sparks creativity, experiencing unpleasant tastes lead to harsh moral judgements, wearing sunglasses makes one likely to cheat — led to one inescapable conclusion: People are shockingly vulnerable to the influence of their senses. Temperature, texture, weight, sound, taste, smell, and color, among other physical sensations, affect people every moment of every day.

"The findings are so astonishing, remarkable in fact, that they lift the curtain on the inner workings of the mind," said Prof. Lobel. "Your sensory experience of the world influences the rational mind you believe you have, as well as the independent thoughts you believe you create."

It quickly became clear that these findings demonstrating the influence of our physical experiences on our behavior and decisions had the makings of a book. "I decided that every person should be able to read about this, not just psychology students and researchers," said Prof. Lobel. "I wanted to write a book that would not only be extremely interesting to anyone who wants to know what influences our behavior, but would also offer tools for all aspects of life — whether in business negotiations, interactions with our children and spouses, athletic performance, or dating. These tools can actually help people navigate their personal and professional lives."

Together with doctoral student Allon Cohen, Prof. Lobel is currently researching visual cues of physical stability and the association between physical and psychological stability. In another study, she is investigating the association between the color pink and optimism, reflected in such metaphors as "rose-tinted glass."

Drawing Conclusions
4/3/2014

TAU researcher finds drawing pictures can be key tool in investigations of child abuse

Is a picture worth only a thousand words? According to Dr. Carmit Katz of Tel Aviv University's Bob Shapell School of Social Work, illustrations by children can be a critical tool in forensic investigations of child abuse.

Dr. Katz's study, published in Child Abuse and Neglect, compared the results when child abuse victims were offered the opportunity to draw during questioning with victims not offered this opportunity. Her findings saw a significant difference, suggesting a therapeutic value and indicating that children empowered to draw pictures about their abuse provided much fuller and more detailed descriptions.

"The act of drawing was not only an empowering experience for these children," said Dr. Katz. "We also found it to be forensically more effective in eliciting richer testimonies in child abuse cases. We had no idea the gap would be so great between those who drew and those who weren't given this option."

A chance to express themselves

Some 125 alleged child victims of sexual abuse were randomly selected for the field study. The children, aged 5-14, were questioned by nine well-trained forensic interviewers about a single occurrence of alleged sexual abuse. The children were divided into two sets — a control group, questioned and allowed to rest during the session; and a variable group, offered the opportunity to draw pictures about their experiences for 7-10 minutes instead of resting.

The interviews in the study were conducted according to standard NICHD (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development International Evidence-Based Investigative Interviewing of Children) protocol, which dictates using open-ended questions to elicit more comprehensive testimonies.

"For example, we asked children to 'tell me again everything that happened to you,' without using any leading terms to steer the discussion," said Dr. Katz. "And we found that if that question was followed by the comment, 'You can use the drawing if you want to,' the child's testimony was substantially more comprehensive and detailed."

In the study, Dr. Katz worked with professional practitioners from Israel's Investigative Interview Service, which is considering incorporating her strategy into the standing NICHD protocol.

Empowering the victim

"As a social worker, I'm not only interested in obtaining accurate forensic results," said Dr. Katz. "I'm also interested in empowering the children. Through drawing, children reported regaining some sense of control — even feeling hopeful. This also has recuperative properties."

Dr. Katz has focused her research on turning the typically traumatic forensic interview into a first step toward recovery for child abuse victims, who reported feeling understood, successful and in control after drawing during the questioning. "The only thing that counts is the child's narrative and his or her narrative of the respective drawing," she said. "But forensic investigators must be very careful not to attribute meaning where none exists. For example, 'I see a penis in this drawing, please tell me about it,' is a projective strategy which usually garners false results. My strategy is to offer open-ended prompts alongside drawing, which we found to be a great facilitator of communication."

Dr. Katz is currently at work on a study of younger child abuse victims, aged 3-6, who experienced multiple incidents of abuse. She hopes to see her research fully integrated into the international NICHD protocol, the prevailing approach to investigating child abuse in most countries today.

Toward a Molecular Explanation for Schizophrenia
12/30/2013

TAU researchers find inhibition of a basic cellular process may contribute to the mysterious disease

Surprisingly little is known about schizophrenia. It was only recognized as a medical condition in the past few decades, and its exact causes remain unclear. Since there is no objective test for schizophrenia, its diagnosis is based on an assortment of reported symptoms. The standard treatment, antipsychotic medication, works less than half the time and becomes increasingly ineffective over time.

Now, Prof. Illana Gozesthe Lily and Avraham Gildor Chair for the Investigation of Growth Factors, the director of the Adams Super Center for Brain Studies at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine, and a member of the Sagol School of Neuroscience at Tel Aviv University — has discovered that an important cell-maintenance process called autophagy is reduced in the brains of schizophrenic patients. The findings, published in Nature's Molecular Psychiatry, advance the understanding of schizophrenia and could enable the development of new diagnostic tests and drug treatments for the disease.

"We discovered a new pathway that plays a part in schizophrenia," said Prof. Gozes. "By identifying and targeting the proteins known to be involved in the pathway, we may be able to diagnose and treat the disease in new and more effective ways."

Graduate students Avia Merenlender-Wagner, Anna Malishkevich, and Zeev Shemer of TAU, Prof. Brian Dean and colleagues of the University of Melbourne, and Prof. Galila Agam and Joseph Levine of Ben Gurion University of the Negev and Beer Sheva's Psychiatry Research Center and Mental Health Center collaborated on the research.

Mopping up

Autophagy is like the cell's housekeeping service, cleaning up unnecessary and dysfunctional cellular components. The process — in which a membrane engulfs and consumes the clutter — is essential to maintaining cellular health. But when autophagy is blocked, it can lead to cell death. Several studies have tentatively linked blocked autophagy to the death of brain cells seen in Alzheimer's disease.

Brain-cell death also occurs in schizophrenics, so Prof. Gozes and her colleagues set out to see if blocked autophagy could be involved in the progression of that condition as well. They found RNA evidence of decreased levels of the protein beclin 1 in the hippocampus of schizophrenia patients, a brain region central to learning and memory. Beclin 1 is central to initiating autophagy — its deficit suggests that the process is indeed blocked in schizophrenia patients. Developing drugs to boost beclin 1 levels and restart autophagy could offer a new way to treat schizophrenia, the researchers say.

"It is all about balance," said Prof Gozes. "Paucity in beclin 1 may lead to decreased autophagy and enhanced cell death. Our research suggests that normalizing beclin 1 levels in schizophrenia patients could restore balance and prevent harmful brain-cell death."

Next, the researchers looked at protein levels in the blood of schizophrenia patients. They found no difference in beclin 1 levels, suggesting that the deficit is limited to the hippocampus. But the researchers also found increased levels of another protein, activity-dependent neuroprotective protein (ADNP), discovered by Prof. Gozes and shown to be essential for brain formation and function, in the patients' white blood cells. Previous studies have shown that ADNP is also deregulated in the brains of schizophrenia patients.

The researchers think the body may boost ADNP levels to protect the brain when beclin 1 levels fall and autophagy is derailed. ADNP, then, could potentially serve as a biomarker, allowing schizophrenia to be diagnosed with a simple blood test.

An illuminating discovery

To further explore the involvement of ADNP in autophagy, the researchers ran a biochemical test on the brains of mice. The test showed that ADNP interacts with LC3, another key protein regulating autophagy — an interaction predicted by previous studies. In light of the newfound correlation between autophagy and schizophrenia, they believe that this interaction may constitute part of the mechanism by which ADNP protects the brain.

Prof. Gozes discovered ADNP in 1999 and carved a protein fragment, NAP, from it. NAP mimics the protein nerve cell protecting properties. In follow-up studies Prof. Gozes helped develop the drug candidate davunetide (NAP). In Phase II clinical trials, davunetide (NAP) improved the ability of schizophrenic patients to cope with daily life. A recent collaborative effort by Prof. Gozes and Dr. Sandra Cardoso and Dr. Raquel Esteves showed that NAP improved autophagy in cultures of brain-like cells. The current study further shows that NAP facilitates the interaction of ADNP and LC3, possibly accounting for NAP's results in schizophrenia patients. The researchers hope NAP will be just the first of their many discoveries to improve understanding and treatment of schizophrenia.

Making Sad Sense of Child Abuse
12/23/2013

TAU deciphers the unpredictable ways children respond to abuse

When a man in Israel was accused of sexually abusing his young daughter, it was hard for many people to believe — a neighbor reported seeing the girl sitting and drinking hot chocolate with her father every morning, laughing, smiling, and looking relaxed. Such cases are not exceptional, however. Children react to sexual and physical abuse in unpredictable ways, making it hard to discern the clues.

Now Dr. Carmit Katz of Tel Aviv University's Bob Shapell School of Social Work has found that when parents are physically abusive, children tend to accommodate it. But when the abuse is sexual, they tend to fight or flee it unless it is severe. The findings, published in Child Abuse & Neglect, help explain children's behavior in response to abuse and could aid in intervention and treatment.

"All the cases of alleged physical abuse in the study involved parents, while we had very few cases of alleged parental sexual abuse," said Dr. Katz. "More than the type of abuse, it may be that children feel they have no choice but to endure abuse by their parents, who they depend on for love and support."

Disturbing data

About 3.5 million cases of child abuse are reported in the United States every year. Similarly alarming situations exist in many other countries. Abused children often suffer from emotional and behavioral problems, which can later develop into sexual dysfunction, anxiety, promiscuity, vulnerability to repeated victimization, depression, and substance abuse.

Israel is not immune. In 2011, trained Israeli authorities interviewed more than 15,000 children following complaints of abuse. Previous research showed that half of children do not disclose anything in interviews, even when there is evidence of abuse.

Dr. Katz analyzed a random sample of 224 of the interviews in which children provided allegations. Roughly half the cases in the study involved allegations of multiple incidents of physical abuse by parents, while the other half involved allegations of sexual abuse.

Dr. Katz found that the children responded to the abuse in two general ways. In physical abuse cases, the children tended to be accommodating — they accepted and tried to minimize the severity of the abuse. On the other hand, children reporting sexual abuse tended to fight back. But when the alleged sexual abuse was severe, the children tended to act like physical abuse victims, accommodating the abuser. Older children, they found, were more likely to fight than younger ones. But surprisingly, the frequency of the abuse, familiarity with the abuser, and the child's gender did not significantly affect how the children responded.

Accepting the unacceptable

Dr. Katz says the study teaches an important lesson when it comes to parental physical abuse. Just because children do not fight or flee their parents does not mean they are not being abused. Children need their parents to survive, and in some cases, parents love, care for, and support their children when they are not abusing them. Under these impossible circumstances, children often feel their best option is accommodation. In one interview in the study, a child said, "Daddy was yelling on me because I didn't do my homework, so I told him I am sorry you are right and brought him his belt." There were many similar examples.

The study may underreport children who accommodate sexual abuse by their parents, Dr. Katz says. Out of the 107 interviews in which children provided allegations of sexual abuse, only six involved a parent. Most of the cases of sexual abuse in the study were severe, and children tended to respond by accommodating their abusers. Previous research showed that children who accommodate their abusers are more likely to harbor feelings of guilt or shame, which may deter them from providing allegations. Accommodation, then, may actually be the dominant response to both types of parental abuse.

The findings help make sense of the testimonies of children in abuse cases. This could help prosecute abusers and provide better intervention and treatment to abused children. Dr. Katz would like to see future studies dealing with children's encounters with clinicians following abuse and how cultural factors affect children's responses to abuse.

"Commitment-Phobic" Adults Could Have Mom and Dad to Blame
12/10/2013

Adults avoiding relationships may be trying to meet childhood needs, says TAU researcher

Afraid to commit to a relationship? According to new research from Tel Aviv University, it could be just one more thing to blame on your parents.

A study of the romantic history of 58 adults aged 22-28 found that those who avoid committed romantic relationships are likely a product of unresponsive or over-intrusive parenting, says Dr. Sharon Dekel, a psychologist and researcher at the Bob Shapell School of Social Work.

Dr. Dekel and her fellow researcher, Prof. Barry Farber of Columbia University, found that 22.4 percent of study participants could be categorized as "avoidant" when it came to their relationships, demonstrating anxiety about intimacy, reluctance to commit to or share with their partner, or a belief that their partner was "clingy," for example. Overall, they reported less personal satisfaction in their relationships than participants who were determined to be secure in their relationships.

The goal of the study, published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, was to address the widespread research debate on "avoidant attachment" — whether such behavior is due to innate personality traits, such as being more of a loner, or is a delayed reaction to unmet childhood needs. Dr. Dekel and Prof. Farber found that while both secure and avoidant individuals expressed a desire for intimacy in relationships, avoidant individuals are conflicted about this need due to the complicated parent-child dynamics they experienced when young.

Taking lessons from childhood

The premise of their study, says Dr. Dekel, is based on attachment theory, which posits that during times of stress, infants seek proximity to their caregivers for emotional support. However, if the parent is unresponsive or overly intrusive, the child learns to avoid their caregiver.

The researchers believe that adult relationships reflect these earlier experiences. When infantile needs are met in childhood, that person approaches adult relationships with more security, seeking intimacy, sharing, caring, and fun, says Dr. Dekel. The researchers labelled these relationships "two-adult" models, in which participants equally share desires with their partner. Avoidant individuals, however, are more likely to adopt an "infant-mother" intimacy model.

When they enter relationships, there is an attempt to satisfy their unmet childhood needs, Dr. Dekel explains. "Avoidant individuals are looking for somebody to validate them, accept them as they are, can consistently meet their needs and remain calm — including not making a fuss about anything or getting caught up in their own personal issues."

The tendency to avoid dependence on a partner is a defense mechanism rather than an avoidance of intimacy, she adds.

Hope for the commitment-phobic?

It's important to study this group further because beyond their severely diminished ability to conduct satisfying romantic relationships, they are also less happy in their lives and are more likely to suffer illnesses than their secure counterparts, notes Dr. Dekel. Psychologists need a better understanding of what these insecure individuals need, perhaps through more sophisticated neurological studies, she suggests.

There is also the question of whether or not these attachment styles are permanent. Dr. Dekel believes that there are some experiences which can help people develop more secure relationship styles.

There are hints that after experiencing a traumatic event, survivors show a greater ability and desire to form closer relationships, Dr. Dekel observed in a previous study in the Journal of Psychological Trauma, completed during her post-doctoral work with Prof. Zahava Solomon. As an expert in the field of trauma recovery and post-traumatic growth who has worked with patients in Israel and abroad to overcome traumatic events, she is beginning to study this phenomenon in greater depth.

A Personal Antidepressant for Every Genome
12/9/2013

TAU researchers discover gene that may predict human responses to specific antidepressants

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed antidepressants, but they don't work for everyone. What's more, patients must often try several different SSRI medications, each with a different set of side effects, before finding one that is effective. It takes three to four weeks to see if a particular antidepressant drug works. Meanwhile, patients and their families continue to suffer.

Now researchers at Tel Aviv University have discovered a gene that may reveal whether people are likely to respond well to SSRI antidepressants, both generally and in specific formulations. The new biomarker, once it is validated in clinical trials, could be used to create a genetic test, allowing doctors to provide personalized treatment for depression.

Doctoral students Keren Oved and Ayelet Morag led the research under the guidance of Dr. David Gurwitz of the Department of Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry at TAU's Sackler Faculty of Medicine and Dr. Noam Shomron of the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at TAU's Sackler Faculty of Medicine and Sagol School of Neuroscience. Sackler faculty members Prof. Moshe Rehavi of the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology and Dr. Metsada Pasmnik-Chor of the Bioinformatics Unit were coauthors of the study, published in Translational Psychology.

"SSRIs only work for about 60 percent of people with depression," said Dr. Gurwitz. "A drug from other families of antidepressants could be effective for some of the others. We are working to move the treatment of depression from a trial-and-error approach to a best-fit, personalized regimen."

Good news for the depressed

More than 20 million Americans each year suffer from disabling depression that requires clinical intervention. SSRIs such as Prozac, Zoloft, and Celexa are the newest and the most popular medications for treatment. They are thought to work by blocking the reabsorption of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, leaving more of it available to help brain cells send and receive chemical signals, thereby boosting mood. It is not currently known why some people respond to SSRIs better than others.

To find genes that may be behind the brain's responsiveness to SSRIs, the TAU researchers first applied the SSRI Paroxetine — brand name Paxil — to 80 sets of cells, or "cell lines," from the National Laboratory for the Genetics of Israeli Populations, a biobank of genetic information about Israeli citizens located at TAU's Sackler Faculty of Medicine and directed by Dr. Gurwitz. The TAU researchers then analyzed and compared the RNA profiles of the most and least responsive cell lines. A gene called CHL1 was produced at lower levels in the most responsive cell lines and at higher levels in the least responsive cell lines. Using a simple genetic test, doctors could one day use CHL1 as a biomarker to determine whether or not to prescribe SSRIs.

"We want to end up with a blood test that will allow us to tell a patient which drug is best for him," said Oved. "We are at the early stages, working on the cellular level. Next comes testing on animals and people."

Rethinking how antidepressants work

The TAU researchers also wanted to understand why CHL1 levels might predict responsiveness to SSRIs. To this end, they applied Paroxetine to human cell lines for three weeks — the time it takes for a clinical response to SSRIs. They found that Paroxetine caused increased production of the gene ITGB3 — whose protein product is thought to interact with CHL1 to promote the development of new neurons and synapses. The result is the repair of dysfunctional signaling in brain regions controlling mood, which may explain the action of SSRI antidepressants.

This explanation differs from the conventional theory that SSRIs directly relieve depression by inhibiting the reabsorption of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Dr. Shomron adds that the new explanation resolves the longstanding mystery as to why it takes at least three weeks for SSRIs to ease the symptoms of depression when they begin inhibiting reabsorption after a couple days — the development of neurons and synapses takes weeks, not days.

The TAU researchers are working to confirm their findings on the molecular level and with animal models. Adva Hadar, a master's student in Dr. Gurwitz's lab, is using the same approach to find biomarkers for the personalized treatment of Alzheimer's disease.

The Good News in Bad News
11/25/2013

TAU researchers say repeatedly exposing yourself to a negative event may prevent it from affecting you

Psychology shows that it doesn't take much to put you in a bad mood. Just reading the morning news can do it. And being in a bad mood slows your reaction time, and affects your basic cognitive abilities like speech, writing, and counting. If you read a depressing newspaper headline in the morning, you may perform worse at work throughout the day.

But new research by Dr. Moshe Shay Ben-Haim, Yaniv Mama, Michal Icht, and Daniel Algom of Tel Aviv University's School of Psychological Sciences now reveals that repeated exposure to a negative event neutralizes its effect on your mood and your thinking. The study, published in Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, has broad implications for understanding our emotions.

"A bad mood is known to slow cognition," says Dr. Ben-Haim. "We show that, counterintuitively, you can avoid getting into a bad mood in the first place by dwelling on a negative event. If you look at the newspaper before you go to work and see a headline about a bombing or tragedy of some kind, it's better to read the article all the way through and repeatedly expose yourself to the negative information. You will be freer to go on with your day in a better mood and without any negative effects."

Too little of a bad thing

The "emotional Stroop task" is the most-used psychological test in evaluating our emotional state. Participants are shown a number of words and asked to name the colors in which they are printed. In general, it takes people longer to identify the colors of negative words like "terrorism" than of neutral words like "table." The trend is particularly pronounced in people with emotional disorders, like depression or anxiety.

There are two general explanations offered. One is that negative words are more distracting, and the other is that they are more threatening. According to both theories, the result is that fewer mental resources are available to identify the ink colors.

Neither explanation appears to predict sustained effects. After the initial distraction or threat, people should be expected to return to identifying the ink colors of neutral words without a delay. Indeed, the few previous studies that have been done on the subject show that it does not matter whether people are shown negative or neutral words first. But in a series of four experiments involving the emotional Stroop task, the researchers showed that these studies are biased by a quirk of the test's design as it is usually administered.

In most cases, people are shown four or five negative words, along with four or five neutral words, in the test 10 to 12 times. The researchers found, after being shown the same negative word only twice, subjects were able to identify the ink color without a delay. On the other hand, when people are shown the negative words just once, they subsequently name the ink colors of neutral words more slowly. The existing theories can't account for these results.

Mood over matter

The researchers suggest an alternative explanation based on previous research. The negative words shown to people in the emotional Stroop task put them in a bad mood, but through repetition, the words lose their affective power. The researchers' explanation was supported by a questionnaire administered to people after they completed the task. Those who had seen each negative word only once were put in a bad mood and suffered from sustained effects, while those who had seen the negative words repeatedly did not suffer from the same after-effects. The participants who were in a bad mood also took longer to complete the evaluating questionnaire.

The researchers' work could have a major impact on our understanding of emotions, attention, and how we process cues in the environment. It could also influence the diagnosis and treatment of many disorders.

Surviving -- Then Thriving
10/29/2013

TAU research shows children of Holocaust survivors react differently to trauma

Modern medicine usually considers trauma — both the physical and the psychological kinds — as unequivocally damaging. Now researchers at Tel Aviv University are lending support to a more philosophical view of suffering, finding that trauma, however terrible, may have distinct psychological benefits.

Last year, junior investigator Dr. Sharon Dekel and Prof. Zahava Solomon of TAU's Bob Shapell School of Social Work found that individuals with Holocaust-survivor parents may be less likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of their own traumas. In a study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, the researchers set out to see if so-called second-generation Holocaust survivors also undergo more post-traumatic "growth."

"Post-traumatic growth can be defined as a workable coping mechanism, a way of making and finding meaning involved in the building of a more positive self-image and the perception of personal strength," said Dekel. "We were interested in studying the effect of the Holocaust on the second generation's propensity for this kind of growth. If we can identify verifiably positive implications of trauma, we will be able to incorporate them into treatment and teach people how to grow after terrible experiences," she said.

Trauma's silver lining

Researchers have traditionally focused on the negative implications of trauma, and survivors have been shown to pass this burden onto their children. But a growing body of evidence suggests that trauma can have positive outcomes as well. Some survivors of traumatic events develop new priorities, closer relationships, an increased appreciation of life, a greater sense of personal strength, and experience heightened spirituality.

In an earlier study, Dekel and Solomon found that veterans of Israel's Yom Kippur War were less likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related conditions many years after combat if they were also second-generation Holocaust survivors. The researchers proposed several explanations, including that children of trauma survivors may have acquired coping mechanisms from their parents that helped protect them from traumas in their own lives.

With this theory in mind, they returned to combat veterans of the Yom Kippur War for their latest study, funded in part by the Narsad Young Investigator Grant, which Dekel received from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation with the sponsorship of Dr. Dylan Tauber. Using self-report questionnaires, the researchers assessed post-traumatic growth in the veterans 30 and 35 years after the war. They report that, contrary to their expectations, second-generation Holocaust survivors had consistently lower post-traumatic growth levels than non-second generation survivors across times.

The second-generation Holocaust survivors, therefore, don't experience their own traumas as "trauma virgins" would, since they are already conditioned by their parents' experience — and, therefore, themselves experience no growth.

Making sense of the incomprehensible

Dekel and Solomon offer several explanations for the fact that second-generation Holocaust survivors who fought in the Yom Kippur War apparently do not have higher rates of post-traumatic growth to match their lower rates of PTSD. The second-generation Holocaust survivors could have grown up in families that did not discuss trauma, inhibiting their post-traumatic growth. Moreover, they could have inherited their parents' guilt for having survived the Holocaust, making it difficult for them to associate trauma with growth and causing them to underreport post-traumatic growth in the latest study.

Another proposed explanation is that second-generation Holocaust survivors grew up constantly exposed to their parents' trauma, making war less stressful for them and lessening their post-traumatic growth, which is understood as the result of struggle with the trauma. The researchers dismiss the idea that no trans-generational transmission of trauma occurs at all, noting that both their studies on the subject show that second-generation Holocaust survivors respond differently to trauma than others.

Trans-generational transmission of trauma seems to limit offspring's positive adaptation following trauma, say the researchers. As for future research, Dekel, who is now affiliated with the Psychiatry Department of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, plans to focus on identifying objective markers of post-traumatic growth in trauma survivors and their children, looking at things like stress-hormone levels, open-ended narrative descriptions, and reports by friends.

The Difference Between Obsession and Delusion
9/4/2013

TAU researchers use a zoological method to classify symptoms of OCD and schizophrenia in humans

Because animals can't talk, researchers need to study their behavior patterns to make sense of their activities. Now researchers at Tel Aviv University are using these zoological methods to study people with serious mental disorders.

Prof. David Eilam of TAU's Zoology Department at The George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences recorded patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder and "schizo-OCD" — which combines symptoms of schizophrenia and OCD — as they performed basic tasks. By analyzing the patients' movements, they were able to identify similarities and differences between two frequently confused disorders.

Published in the journal CNS Spectrums, the research represents a step toward resolving a longstanding question about the nature of schizo-OCD: Is it a combination of OCD and schizophrenia, or a variation of just one of the disorders?

The researchers concluded that schizo-OCD is a combination of the two disorders. They noted that the behavioral differences identified in the study could be used to help diagnose patients with OCD and other obsessive-compulsive disorders, including schizo-OCD.

The taxonomy of mental disorders

"I realized my methodology for studying rat models could be directly applied to work with humans with mental disorders," Prof. Eilam said. "Behavior is the ultimate output of the nervous system, and my team and I are experts in the fine-grained analysis of behavior, be it of humans or of other animals."

The main features of OCD are, of course, obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are recurring and persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that are experienced as intrusive and unwanted and cause marked distress or anxiety. In contrast, compulsions are repetitive motor behaviors, such as counting, that occur in response to obsessions and are performed according to strictly applied rules. Schizophrenia is marked by delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, abnormal motor behavior, and diminished emotional expression, among other symptoms.

Eilam and graduate student Anat Gershoni of the Zoology Department and Prof. Haggai Hermesh of TAU's Sackler Faculty of Medicine set out with Dr. Naomi Fineberg of the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in England to resolve the controversy. To this end, they recorded and compared videos of diagnosed OCD and schizo-OCD patients performing 10 different mundane tasks, like leaving home, making tea, or cleaning a table. The patients met the criteria of the widely used Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

A matter of space

The researchers found that both OCD and schizo-OCD patients exhibited OCD-like behavior in performing the tasks, excessively repeating and adding actions. But schizo-OCD patients additionally acted like schizophrenics.

For a typical OCD patient in the study, the task of leaving home involved standing in one place and repeatedly checking the contents of his pockets before finally taking his keys and cell phone and going to the door. In contrast, a typical schizo-OCD patient traveled around the apartment — switching the lights in the bathroom on and off, then taking his keys and phone to the door, going to scan the bedroom, then taking his keys and phone to the door, going to empty the ashtray, then taking his keys and phone to the door and so on. A typical healthy person would simply pick up his keys and phone and walk out.

Overall, the researchers found that the level of obsessive-compulsive behavior was the same in OCD and schizo-OCD patients. This suggests that both types of patients had the difficulty shifting attention from one task to another that helps define OCD. The schizo-OCD patients, though, did more divergent activity over a larger area than did OCD patients. This suggests that the schizo-OCD patients were continuously shifting attention, which happens in schizophrenia but not OCD.

"While the obsessive compulsive is obsessed with one idea; the schizophrenic's mind is drifting," said Eilam. "We found that this is reflected in their paths of locomotion. So instead of tracking the thoughts of the patients, we can simply trace their paths of locomotion."

Eilam plans to conduct research comparing repetitive behavior in OCD and autism patients.

"Holocaust Journeys" Can Cause Mental Health Problems
8/20/2013

TAU research finds Holocaust memorial trips are serious stressors for Israeli high school students

A new study led by Tel Aviv University researchers finds that the Holocaust education trips Israeli high school students take to Poland every year can trigger mental health problems.

About a third of the psychiatric professionals surveyed in this pilot study said they had treated teenagers for psychological problems arising from the Holocaust education trips. While most of the teenagers were treated for less severe symptoms such as anxiety, adjustment, and mood disorders, reports also cited hospitalization, post-traumatic-stress disorder, and psychosis.

In the majority of cases, the affected teenagers exhibited risk factors — like psychiatric or family crises or social difficulties — prior to the Holocaust education trips. Others had stressful experiences during the trips, such as being bullied, that were unrelated to Holocaust education.

"The trips to Poland appear to pose a risk primarily to adolescents with histories of psychological difficulties," says Dr. Yuval Bloch of Tel Aviv University's Sackler Faculty of Medicine and head of the Child and Adolescent Outpatient Clinic at Shalvata Mental Health Center. Dr. Bloch was prompted to conduct the study with his wife Dr. Aviva Mimouni-Bloch, also a lecturer in the Sackler Faculty of Medicine and head of the Neuropediatric Unit at Loewenstein Hospital Rehabilitation Hospital, after she and their son went on one of the trips.

A rite of passage

Every year, about 20 percent of Israeli high school students take Holocaust memorial journeys designed to teach them about the Nazi atrocities committed against European Jewry on Polish soil. Over eight days, the students tour concentration camp sites with Holocaust survivors, share Holocaust stories of family members, and learn about the horrors Jews experienced during World War II. Since the trips were made an optional part of the Education Ministry's curriculum in 1988, more than 30,000 students have participated.

The Holocaust education trips have occasionally generated controversy in Israel, with some people questioning if they are psychologically damaging the country's youth. An unpublished study presented to the Knesset of 1,996 teenagers who participated in the trips found that 1 percent felt they lacked the "mental strength" to handle their experiences.

The new study, coauthored by Prof. Gary Walter of the University of Sydney and published in the journal Australian Psychiatry in May 2013, is the first to look at the Holocaust education trips from a mental health perspective. As a pilot study, with a small amount of retrospective data, it draws limited conclusions and calls for further research. The study notes that evidence is accumulating that "indirect exposure" to traumatic events, like learning of a friend's drowning or watching people falling or jumping from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, may precipitate PTSD.

Support and screening

The study was based on questionnaires filled out by 50 Israeli psychiatrists and residents specializing in children and adolescents. The Holocaust trips accounted for as many reported psychiatric referrals as high school "sleep-out" trips — multi-day hiking excursions to various parts of Israel — which are much more frequent and widely attended. Even so, the researchers say, severe psychological fallout from the Holocaust-education trips appears to be rare. Only four diagnoses of psychosis, one diagnosis of PTSD, and one hospitalization were reported.

"Ninety-nine percent of the adolescents that went on the journey were not traumatized," says Bloch. "It was a stressor for them: a harder stressor than other things in their lives. But we were not able to say that we are traumatizing our children."

The study recommends that "high-risk" students be psychologically evaluated before participating in the Holocaust-education trips — and that support be provided before, during and after the trips. "The parent who is hesitating about sending his child on the journey, thinking it may throw the child off a good path, can now probably be less worried," says Bloch. "On the other hand, the parent whose child has an eating disorder or anxiety issues should probably try to get the child more support on the trip, or, in the last resort, not send him." But this decision itself, he adds, could have its own set of psychological consequences.

In the future, the study suggests investigating the role identity plays in teenagers' reactions to preplanned stressors. For instance, do Holocaust-education trips affect Israeli teenagers differently than their peers from other countries? Or is having a Holocaust-survivor grandparent a risk factor?

It's a Sure Thing: Knowledge of the Game Is Not an Advantage in Sports Gambling
3/19/2013

Sports bettors are driven by an illusory sense of control, says TAU researcher

Psychologists have traditionally characterized compulsive gambling as an "impulse control disorder," and treated it by addressing the patient's obsessive tendencies. But according to Prof. Pinhas Dannon of Tel Aviv University's Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Beer Yaakov Mental Health Center, not all pathological gamblers fit the same profile.

Though gambling is typically associated with casino games, strategic sports betting is rapidly gaining in popularity — and that's a whole other ball game, Prof. Dannon explains. "Sports gamblers seem to believes themselves the cleverest of all gamblers. They think that with experience and knowledge — such as player's statistics, manager's habits, weather conditions, and stadium capacity — they can predict the outcome of a game better than the average person."

But in a study published in the journal Psychopathology, Prof. Dannon and Dr. Ronen Huberfeld of the Beer Yaakov Mental Health Center determined that neither betting experience nor knowledge of the arcane details of the game is connected to successful betting outcomes.  Indeed, he says, the two most successful gamblers in their study had no prior experience in gambling or knowledge of the sport in question.

These results indicate that sports gamblers are operating under an illusion of control and power unrelated to real-life outcomes, says Prof. Dannon. This should inform how psychologists approach sports gamblers, who need to be treated using different methods than their casino-addicted counterparts.

No predictor of success

For their study, the researchers focused on the field of soccer betting, one of the most popular and growing forms of sports gambling. They recruited three groups of participants, including 53 professional sports gamblers, 34 soccer fans who were knowledgeable about the sport but had never gambled, and finally, 78 non-gamblers with no prior knowledge of soccer at all.

All participants were asked to place bets on the final scores of the 16 second-round matches of the Champion's League, organized by the Union of European Football Associations. This model mimics how gamblers actually put their money on the games, where they need to bet on exact scores to win.

Although those who had prior knowledge of soccer were expected to have a higher success rate, the researchers discovered that, in fact, their success rate was no better than those of the other two groups. Interestingly, the two participants with the most successful record, correctly betting on seven out of the 16 games each, hailed from the group with no prior understanding of the sport.

This doesn't indicate that there is an advantage to inexperience, says Prof. Dannon — many others in the third group were unable to predict any of the results correctly. But the outcome exposes the myth of knowledge as a powerful betting advantage. The sense of control that encourages sports gamblers in their betting is just an illusion.

Addressing different addiction profiles

Because psychologists often place all gamblers in the same category, sports gamblers typically receive a standardized treatment. But these methods won't help sports gamblers overcome their addiction, warns Prof. Dannon. Instead, sports gamblers need cognitive therapy that retrains their thinking habits and rids them of the illusion of control.

"Casino gamblers are more appropriately characterized as obsessives because they have less belief in themselves, and know that they will lose sooner or later. But they gamble anyway because they feel they need to," he says. In contrast, sports gamblers believe that they can control the outcome. These different addiction profiles ultimately necessitate different treatment strategies.

Closer Personal Relationships Could Help Teens Overcome Learning Disabilities
2/28/2013

TAU researcher finds that children with learning disabilities develop less secure attachments with mothers and teachers

In addition to struggling in school, many learning disabled children are known to face social and emotional challenges including depression, anxiety, and isolation. Often beginning early in childhood, they become more pronounced during adolescence, an emotionally turbulent time.

For these youngsters, more positive relationships with the significant adults in their lives — including parents and teachers — can improve learning and "socioemotional" experiences, says Dr. Michal Al-Yagon of Tel Aviv University's Jaime and Joan Constantiner School of Education. In a recent study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, she reported that teens with learning disabilities were less likely to have secure attachment relationships to their mothers and teachers compared to peers without learning disabilities.

The absence of such close and supportive relationships had an adverse effect on the teens' social and emotional functioning, contributing to behavioral problems including isolation, depression, and aggression. "We found that more secure child-adult attachments may act as a protective factor during this developmental period, whereas insecure attachments are a risk factor" for social and emotional issues, Dr. Al-Yagon says.

These results could help researchers design more effective interventions for children and adolescents with learning disabilities. Helping to strengthen their relationships with parents and teachers may decrease their emotional and behavioral problems.

The power of attachment

Attachment theory, which describes long-term relationship dynamics, seeks to explain how parental involvement, availability, and support can shape a child's social and emotional development. Insecure attachments are damaging to a child, hindering future relationships with peers, romantic partners, and family members.

For this study, Dr. Al-Yagon measured the socioemotional state and the security of attachments to parents and teachers for 181 adolescents with learning disabilities and 188 with typical development, all between the ages of 15-17. Participants completed a series of questionnaires regarding their attachment to their mother and father, perceived teacher availability and rejection, loneliness, experience of positive and negative emotions and behavioral problems.

Adolescents with learning disabilities were discovered to have less secure attachments with significant adult figures compared to their non-disabled peers, which had a direct impact on their socioemotional state. Within the disabled group, those who had more secure attachments to their mother and father, or who considered their teacher caring and available, exhibited fewer negative emotions, feelings of loneliness, and behavior problems — all of which can interfere with learning.

Building closer relationships

These findings can help guide clinicians in developing effective treatment strategies, says Dr. Al-Yagon. Examples include family intervention techniques that focus on creating more secure attachments between parents and children, or school workshops to help teachers understand the needs of their learning disabled students and make more of an effort to include them in classroom activities.

While social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties cannot be entirely avoided, Dr. Al-Yagon believes that a little effort, care, and attention can go a long way toward helping learning disabled children and teens feel happier and more secure. "Parents and teachers should be aware not just of academic difficulties, but also of socioemotional difficulties — and work to treat them. They should not avoid or ignore issues such as depression or aggression, which are another dimension of the original problem," she advises.

Gene Associated with High Anxiety Can Have Protective Effect on the Battlefield
2/13/2013

Threat vigilance can protect against PTSD, TAU researcher finds

The onset of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is unpredictable. Because it depends on the unforeseeable occurrence of traumatic events, it is difficult to identify preventative or causative factors. Scientists typically turn to patients who have already developed PTSD to study the disorder, but that means they can't draw comparisons to their psychological state prior to experiencing trauma.

Now, through a combination of genetic and psychological testing, Prof. Yair Bar-Haim and PhD student Ilan Wald of Tel Aviv University's School of Psychological Sciences have identified factors that mitigate against PTSD. Their study focused on infantry soldiers in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). Soldiers have a high probability of experiencing traumatic events, explains Prof. Bar-Haim, so a susceptible subgroup is practically bound to develop the disorder.

Through psychological and DNA studies, they discovered that excessive threat vigilance, a behavior typically associated with elevated anxiety in everyday life, is a normal response in soldiers during combat deployment. In combat, those soldiers who avoided threats were more likely to develop PTSD as a result of traumatic experiences. This study, which was done in collaboration with the IDF, the National Institutes of Mental Health, and Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, was published today in JAMA Psychiatry.

Through attention bias modification training — which trains participants to direct their attention either towards or away from threatening stimuli — soldiers could learn to increase their vigilance towards threats before they're deployed, possibly reducing their risk for PTSD, he says. He also notes that this discovery could prove valuable in PTSD prevention for populations that are more likely to be exposed to traumatic situations.

A heightened attention to threat

To explore the causative factors of PTSD, Prof. Bar-Haim and his fellow researchers designed a study of 1,100 new infantry recruits to the IDF. Each participant underwent testing first at the time of recruitment, again after basic training, and finally six months into their deployment in a conflict zone. Several major vulnerability and resilience factors were measured: self-reported symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD; threat-related attention bias; combat exposure; and genetic markers that indicate a tendency towards anxiety.

The researchers noticed that where computer-based testing revealed a strong vigilance towards threats during deployment, the soldier was much less likely to develop PTSD. That discovery corresponded to significant genetic findings about the serotonin transporter gene, which plays a key role in the control of serotonin availability in the brain and modulates important psychological functions such as mood, appetite, and sleep. It has three variants — short/short, short/long and long/long. The short/short variant of the gene is associated with enhanced threat vigilance and a higher incidence of anxiety and depression in everyday conditions. But in war zones, soldiers who carried the short/short variant of the gene were actually at an advantage, since their attuned attention towards threat protected them from developing PTSD in traumatic situations.

Re-training the mind

In the persistent conflict in Israel, rates of PTSD symptoms are at approximately six to seven percent. For soldiers serving in active war zones like Iraq or Afghanistan, the rate is much higher and could reach up to 20 percent, reports Prof. Bar-Haim. He commends the IDF and US Army for their commitment to finding a solution. "They are on the front line of science in trying to understand risk and resilience factors," he says.

Identifying this protective factor is a first step towards preventative treatment, Prof. Bar-Haim reports. Teaching soldiers to be more sensitive to threats prior to deployment could reduce the overall risk of developing PTSD. The researchers are currently developing a study that will test different preventative treatment options, and hope to have results in the next few years.

Mistaking OCD for ADHD Has Serious Consequences
12/18/2012

Often confused, misdiagnosis can jeopardize patient care, warns TAU researcher

On the surface, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) appear very similar, with impaired attention, memory, or behavioral control. But Prof. Reuven Dar of Tel Aviv University's School of Psychological Sciences argues that these two neuropsychological disorders have very different roots — and there are enormous consequences if they are mistaken for each other.

Prof. Dar and fellow researcher Dr. Amitai Abramovitch, who completed his PhD under Prof. Dar's supervision, have determined that despite appearances, OCD and ACHD are far more different than alike. While groups of both OCD and ADHD patients were found to have difficulty controlling their abnormal impulses in a laboratory setting, only the ADHD group had significant problems with these impulses in the real world.

According to Prof. Dar, this shows that while OCD and ADHD may appear similar on a behavioral level, the mechanism behind the two disorders differs greatly. People with ADHD are impulsive risk-takers, rarely reflecting on the consequences of their actions. In contrast, people with OCD are all too concerned with consequences, causing hesitancy, difficulty in decision-making, and the tendency to over-control and over-plan.

Their findings, published in the Journal of Neuropsychology, draw a clear distinction between OCD and ADHD and provide more accurate guidelines for correct diagnosis. Confusing the two threatens successful patient care, warns Prof. Dar, noting that treatment plans for the two disorders can differ dramatically. Ritalin, a psychostimulant commonly prescribed to ADHD patients, can actually exacerbate OCD behaviors, for example. Prescribed to an OCD patient, it will only worsen symptoms.

Separating cause from effect

To determine the relationship between OCD and ADHD, the researchers studied three groups of subjects: 30 diagnosed with OCD, 30 diagnosed with ADHD, and 30 with no psychiatric diagnosis. All subjects were male with a mean age of 30. Comprehensive neuropsychological tests and questionnaires were used to study cognitive functions that control memory, attention, and problem-solving, as well as those that inhibit the arbitrary impulses that OCD and ADHD patients seem to have difficulty controlling.

As Prof. Dar and Dr. Abramovitch predicted, both the OCD and ADHD groups performed less than a comparison group in terms of memory, reaction time, attention and other cognitive tests. Both groups were also found to have abnormalities in their ability to inhibit or control impulses, but in very different ways. In real-world situations, the ADHD group had far more difficulty controlling their impulses, while the OCD group was better able to control these impulses than even the control group.

When people with OCD describe themselves as being impulsive, this is a subjective description and can mean that they haven't planned to the usual high degree, explains Prof. Dar.

Offering the right treatment

It's understandable why OCD symptoms can be mistaken for ADHD, Prof. Dar says. For example, a student in a classroom could be inattentive and restless, and assumed to have ADHD. In reality, the student could be distracted by obsessive thoughts or acting out compulsive behaviors that look like fidgeting.

"It's more likely that a young student will be diagnosed with ADHD instead of OCD because teachers see so many people with attention problems and not many with OCD. If you don't look carefully enough, you could make a mistake," cautions Prof. Dar. Currently, 5.2 million children in the US between the ages of 3 and 17 are diagnosed with ADHD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making it one of the most commonly diagnosed neuro-developmental disorders in children.

The correct diagnosis is crucial for the well-being and future trajectory of the patient, not just for the choice of medication, but also for psychological and behavioral treatment, and awareness and education for families and teachers.


Uncovering a Flaw in Drug Testing for Chronic Anxiety Disorder
12/13/2012

TAU scientists say current tests are using the wrong mouse model

Pre-clinical trials — the stage at which medications or therapies are tested on animals like laboratory mice — is a crucial part of drug development. It's only then that scientists can assess benefits and side effects before a drug is administered to patients.

Now, Prof. Ilan Golani of Tel Aviv University's Department of Zoology and Sagol School for Neuroscience and his fellow researchers Prof. Yoav Benjamini of TAU's Department of Statistics and Operations Research and the Sagol School of Neuroscience, and Dr. Ehud Fonio of the Weizmann Institute are questioning the animal models used for measuring chronic disorders such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Using a hundred-times longer experimental time-frame and comparing lab mice with wild mice, the researchers found that the lab mice used do not actually experience chronic anxiety.

Instead, the researchers found that the behavior exhibited by the mice in the first minutes of an experiment is only a temporary response to a new environment. With time, the mice revert back to their true temperaments — lab mice have calm temperaments and wild mice are anxious. This discovery, which has been reported in the journals PLoS One and Nature Methods, could explain why most candidate drugs developed using this mouse model have poor therapeutic value in treating human brain disorders, says Prof. Golani.

Back to the wild

Because of their genetic similarity to humans, mice are the most commonly used lab animals. Countless hours and billions of dollars have been spent developing mouse models, whose genes can be engineered to mimic human diseases and disorders. And while many of these models have made invaluable contributions to the advancement of research into Parkinson's disease and various cancers, others have proven less effective.

A chronically anxious mouse model is crucial to test anti-anxiety therapies, says Prof. Golani. Currently, scientists use a specific strain of lab mice thought to be particularly anxious. During experiments, the mice are placed in a novel environment and monitored for signs of anxiety such as staying in sheltered rather than exposed space, for example. After drugs are administered, the mice are observed for a reduction in anxious behaviors.

The researchers compared the lab mouse strain now used for Generalized Anxiety Disorder testing to a strain of first-generation wild mice born in captivity. The time-frame of the experiment was extended from a few minutes to as long as 45 hours. Though the lab mice appeared more anxious at first, the scientists discovered that the lab mice eventually settle into calm behavior, while the wild mice exhibit consistently more anxious behavior: "In nature, mice must always be on high alert or they will get preyed upon," explains Prof. Golani.

They believe that the current Generalized Anxiety Disorder methodology for animal models should be revised because of three main experimental fallacies: use of the wrong animal, too short a time-frame, and analysis made at the wrong points in the experiment. These prevent the diagnosis of true chronic mal-behavior, they say.

Replicating results

In their Nature Methods article, the researchers call for similar scrutiny of other behavioral animal models. One important criterion is that findings from experiments conducted using an animal model must be replicable in other labs. The lack of replicability is a problem in the field, they note, which is currently insufficiently addressed by complicated and costly efforts to standardize experimental protocols.

Not every experiment needs to be replicated in many labs, sacrificing more animals, time and money, says Prof. Benjamini. "Developing a collaborative database that draws on the different experiments conducted across the globe, as well as using appropriate data mining tools, can yield the needed yardstick to check for replicability of findings for scientists in isolated labs," he adds. Such a community-based effort can help researchers better identify valid experimental results.

The Israeli Science Foundation and a European Research Council Grant supported the research.


History of Human Conflicts Revealed by Mathematical Model
11/29/2012

TAU research finds patterns in dramatic drop in violence over the past millennium

The evening news shows how dangerous a place the world can be. But Dr. Jacob Bock Axelsen of the Biomathematics Unit at Tel Aviv University's Department of Zoology says that individuals are markedly more peaceful now than throughout human history — and now he's got a mathematical model to show it. Originally designed to explain population densities of language groups, it's the first mathematical model to map the intensity of conflicts through the global demographic history of the past millennium.

Especially in the western world, casualties from wars have dropped dramatically and homicide rates are falling, Dr. Axelsen explains, noting that the more advanced and complex the society becomes, the more barriers against violence are put into place. He conducted the study with fellow researchers Susanna C. Manrubia of the Centro de Astrobiología in Madrid and Damian Zanette of Bariloche in Argentina.

Fighting for growth

"If you plot the statistics on population sizes  and areas against one another, the slope simultaneously reveals the violence levels that the groups have endured in that particular region, with a steeper slope indicating heavier violence," says Dr. Axelsen.

Finding that hunter-gatherer societies were the most violent per individual, the model revealed that historically the most violent areas of the world have been Papua New Guinea, Africa, Europe, Asia, and South America, as determined by the strength of conflicts in the region. Hunter-gatherer societies experience the most violence because they are less able to prevent spontaneously occurring violence and retaliation, Dr. Axelsen says.

As a population grows, people need more space to live and work. Often this expansion only comes at the expense of their neighbors. This creates tension that often leads to violent confrontation, rewarding the victor with more land to accommodate its growing population. The stronger the fight is, the more land that is exchanged.

Typically, losing a war or experiencing population loss means the surrender of land. If the conflict strength is low this squeezes a society's population into a smaller space and a corresponding higher density, says Dr. Axelsen. This is why the hard-fighting hunter-gatherers tend to be more and more spread out than South American groups which have a much lower level of violence and thus peacefully accept a higher population density.

The demise of diversity

Dr. Axelsen says that the model also proves that population growth and conflict have had a major impact on cultural and linguistic diversity. As cultural groups have grown to become mighty civilizations, they have often crushed smaller groups in their path. And at an average loss of one language group per month, cultural diversity across the globe is currently waning.

We are witnessing the extinction of various cultural and linguistic groups not unlike the demise of biodiversity in the animal kingdom, Dr. Axelsen adds. This extinction represents a loss of accumulated cultural knowledge and values. Now, with rates of violence falling worldwide, the time is ripe to rediscover and preserve such nearly lost and overlooked cultures, he suggests.


Is Facebook a Factor in Psychotic Symptoms?
11/20/2012

TAU researcher connects computer communications and psychosis

As Internet access becomes increasingly widespread, so do related psychopathologies such as Internet addiction and delusions related to the technology and to virtual relationships. Computer communications such as Facebook and chat groups are an important part of this story, says Dr. Uri Nitzan of Tel Aviv University's Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Shalvata Mental Health Care Center in a new paper published in the Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences.

In his study, the researcher presented three in-depth case studies linking psychotic episodes to Internet communications from his own practice. According to Dr. Nitzan, patients shared some crucial characteristics, including loneliness or vulnerability due to the loss of or separation from a loved one, relative inexperience with technology, and no prior history of psychosis or substance abuse. In each case, a connection was found between the gradual development and exacerbation of psychotic symptoms, including delusions, anxiety, confusion, and intensified use of computer communications.

The good news is that all of the patients, who willingly sought out treatment on their own, were able to make a full recovery with proper treatment and care, Dr. Nitzan says.

Behind the screen

The Internet is a free and liberal space that many individuals use on a daily basis and a growing part of a normal social life. But while technologies such as Facebook have numerous advantages, some patients are harmed by these social networking sites, which can attract those who are lonely or vulnerable in their day-to-day lives or act as a platform for cyber-bullying and other predatory behavior.

All three of Dr. Nitzan's patients sought refuge from a lonely situation and found solace in intense virtual relationships. Although these relationships were positive at first, they eventually led to feelings of hurt, betrayal, and invasion of privacy, reports Dr. Nitzan. "All of the patients developed psychotic symptoms related to the situation, including delusions regarding the person behind the screen and their connection through the computer," he says. Two patients began to feel vulnerable as a result of sharing private information, and one even experienced tactile hallucinations, believing that the person beyond the screen was physically touching her.

Some of the problematic features of the Internet relate to issues of geographical and spatial distortion, the absence of non-verbal cues, and the tendency to idealize the person with whom someone is communicating, becoming intimate without ever meeting face-to-face. All of these factors can contribute to a patient's break with reality, and the development of a psychotic state.

A changing social landscape

Dr. Nitzan and his colleagues plan to do more in-depth research on Facebook, studying the features and applications that have the potential to harm patients emotionally or permit patients to cause emotional harm to others. Some psychotic patients use the Internet to disturb people, abusing their ability to interact anonymously, he says.

Because social media are now such an important part of our culture, mental health professionals should not overlook their influence when speaking to patients, Dr. Nitzan counsels. "When you ask somebody about their social life, it's very sensible to ask about Facebook and social networking habits, as well as Internet use. How people conduct themselves on the Internet is quite important to psychiatrists, who shouldn't ignore this dimension of their patients' behavior patterns."


Fantasy-Reality Confusion a Primary Cause of Childhood Nighttime Fears
11/13/2012

Therapies based on imagination could prove an effective cure, says a TAU researcher

From monsters under the bed to bogeymen in the closet, most children experience nighttime fears at some point in their development. And while most grow out of them without any professional intervention, others contend with persistent and extended periods of these fears, with a risk of developing anxiety problems later in life.

As part of a large-scale project on nighttime fears funded by the Israeli Science Foundation, Prof. Avi Sadeh of Tel Aviv University's School of Psychological Sciences is exploring how these fears fit into the normal developmental process — and when they become a problem. Together with Dr. Jonathan Kushnir, who completed his Ph.D. studies in the field in Prof. Sadeh's lab, MA student Tamar Zisenwine, and Ph.D. student Michal Kaplan, he discovered that a child's ability to differentiate fact from fiction has a huge impact on overcoming terror of things that go bump in the night.

In their study, published in Child Psychiatry and Human Development, the researchers found that preschoolers with persistent nighttime fears were far less able to distinguish reality from fantasy compared to their peers. The research will help clinicians and parents alike to develop interventions that can better soothe fretful children, he says, noting that a strong imagination can ultimately be used to the child's psychological advantage.

Separating fact and fiction

For young children undergoing significant development in their ability to differentiate reality from fantasy, bedtime can be a major challenge. In many cases, it is the only time of the day when they're left to face their thoughts, feelings, and fears alone, explains Prof. Sadeh. This is when imagination can run wild.

To test their hypothesis that fantasy–reality confusion has a strong impact on nighttime fears, researchers evaluated four-to-six-year-old children — 80 of them diagnosed with severe nighttime fears and 32 with more normal development — on their ability to separate fact from fiction based on parental reports and a standardized interview. For example, children were presented with the character of a fairy, then asked a series of questions to determine whether or not the fairy was fictional, including whether or not they could call the fairy by phone or the fairy could visit them at home.

Children with more intense nighttime fears were significantly less able to differentiate reality from fantasy. As expected, younger children of the group also scored lower on these evaluations than their elders, a result attributable to the children's developmental stage. The lower the score, the more severe the child's nighttime fears.

The power of imagination

According to Prof. Sadeh, the fantasy-reality confusion that causes nighttime fears can also be used to help children to overcome these fears. Parents and clinicians can use this affinity for the imaginary to the child's benefit.

"We send children mixed signals by telling them that monsters aren't real while we tell them stories about the tooth fairy," he explains. Simply telling a child that their fear isn't realistic doesn't solve the problem, he says. Prof. Sadeh recommends using the child's strong imagination as a treatment. For instance, parents might help their children view an imaginary monster as a non-threatening entity, perhaps by writing it a letter to extend an offer of friendship or reading the child a book in which a threatening figure turns out to be friendly.

One treatment that Prof. Sadeh has found highly effective is a toy called a "huggy puppy." In this therapy, children are presented with a stuffed dog and told that the once happy puppy is now sad. They are given the responsibility of being the puppy's friend, caring for him, and ensuring that he is not afraid at night. Because this intervention depends on the child's willingness to believe the huggy puppy's story and embrace their new compassionate role, it works best for children with stronger imaginations, he says.


Going with Your Gut
11/8/2012

Decisions based on instinct have surprisingly positive outcomes, TAU researcher finds

Decision-making is an inevitable part of the human experience, and one of the most mysterious. For centuries, scientists have studied how we go about the difficult task of choosing A or B, left or right, North or South — and how both instinct and intellect figure into the process. Now new research indicates that the old truism "look before you leap" may be less true than previously thought.

In a behavioral experiment, Prof. Marius Usher of Tel Aviv University's School of Psychological Sciences and his fellow researchers found that intuition was a surprisingly powerful and accurate tool. When forced to choose between two options based on instinct alone, the participants made the right call up to 90 percent of the time.

The results of their study were recently published in the journal PNAS.

Value-added thinking

Even at the intuitive level, an important part of the decision-making process is the "integration of value" — that is, taking into account the positive and negative factors of each option to come up with an overall picture, explains Prof. Usher. One weighs the strengths and weaknesses of different apartments for rent or applicants for a job. Various relevant criteria contribute to the decision-making process.

"The study demonstrates that humans have a remarkable ability to integrate value when they do so intuitively, pointing to the possibility that the brain has a system that specializes in averaging value," Prof. Usher says. This could be the operational system on which common decision-making processes are built.

In order to get to the core of this system, Prof. Usher designed an experiment to put participants through a carefully controlled decision-making process. On a computer screen, participants were shown sequences of pairs of numbers in quick succession. All numbers that appeared on the right of the screen and all on the left were considered a group; each group represented returns on the stock market.

Participants were asked to choose which of the two groups of numbers had the highest average. Because the numbers changed so quickly — two to four pairs were shown every second — the participants were unable to memorize the numbers or do proper mathematical calculations, explains Prof. Usher. To determine the highest average of either group, they had to rely on "intuitive arithmetic."

Doing the math

The participants were able to calculate the different values accurately at exceptional speed, the researchers found. They were also able to process large amounts of data — in fact, their accuracy increased in relation to the amount of data they were presented. When shown six pairs of numbers, for example, the participants chose accurately 65 percent of the time. But when they were shown 24 pairs, the accuracy rate grew to about 90 percent.

Intuitively, the human brain has the capacity to take in many pieces of information and decide on an overall value, says Prof. Usher. He says that gut reactions can be trusted to make a quality decision — a conclusion supported by his earlier work with Prof. Dan Zakay and Dr. Zohar Rusou published in Frontiers in Cognitive Science.

Risky behavior

Of course, intuition is also subject to certain biases, explains Prof. Usher, and leads to more risks — risks that people are willing to take. That was shown when the researchers engaged participants in tests that measured their risk-taking tendencies, and were surprised to discover that the majority of the participants didn't play it safe. When faced with a choice between two sets of numbers with the same average, one with a narrow distribution, such as 45 and 55, and another with a broad distribution, such as 70 and 30, people were swayed by the large numbers and took a chance on the broadly distributed numbers rather than making the "safe" choice.

Although this work was based on a behavioral experiment, Prof. Usher says that an interesting next step could be to measure brain activity throughout the task in an attempt to uncover the physiological aspects of value integration.


Rats Could Be Key to Solving Human Depression
10/24/2012

TAU researchers find that adolescent stress may protect against suicidal behavior

In a surprising discovery, Tel Aviv University researchers have found that exposure to stress in adolescence may prove to protect against depression and suicidal behavior later in life. This is the case even for adolescents who are genetically predisposed to suicide, says Prof. Gil Zalsman of TAU's Sackler Faculty of Medicine.

For the study, researchers used the Wistar-Kyoto strain of rats, which possess hormonal and behavioral abnormalities that mimic depressive symptoms in humans. The rats were exposed to various stress-inducing tests throughout different stages in their lifecycle, including being forced to swim or being held in a cage overnight with wet sawdust.

In a second experiment, another group of rats was exposed to a stimulation-rich environment after undergoing stress-inducing tests in childhood to determine if the effects of this childhood stress could be mitigated. The findings suggest that a tendency towards suicidal behavior as a result of exposure to stress is apparently reversible, noted Prof. Zalsman.

This study was recently presented at the 14th European Symposium for Suicide and Suicidal Behavior in Tel Aviv.

For more on how rats are demystifying human depression, see the Ha'aretz story:
"Israeli scientists turn to rats to solve the maze of human depression"


Are Schizophrenia and Autism Close Relations?
10/23/2012

TAU researcher discovers that family history of schizophrenia is a risk factor for autism

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), a category that includes autism, Asperger Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, are characterized by difficulty with social interaction and communication, or repetitive behaviors. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Management says that one in 88 children in the US is somewhere on the Autism spectrum — an alarming ten-fold increase in the last four decades.

New research by Dr. Mark Weiser of Tel Aviv University's Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Sheba Medical Center has revealed that ASD appears share a root cause with other mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. At first glance, schizophrenia and autism may look like completely different illnesses, he says. But closer inspection reveals many common traits, including social and cognitive dysfunction and a decreased ability to lead normal lives and function in the real world.

Studying extensive databases in Israel and Sweden, the researchers discovered that the two illnesses had a genetic link, representing a heightened risk within families. They found that people who have a schizophrenic sibling are 12 times more likely to have autism than those with no schizophrenia in the family. The presence of bipolar disorder in a sibling showed a similar pattern of association, but to a lesser degree.

A scientific leap forward, this study sheds new light on the genetics of these disorders. The results will help scientists better understand the genetics of mental illness, says Dr. Weiser, and may prove to be a fruitful direction for future research. The findings have been published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

All in the family

Researchers used three data sets, one in Israel and two in Sweden, to determine the familial connection between schizophrenia and autism. The Israeli database alone, used under the auspices of the ethics committees of both the Sheba Medical Center and the Israeli Defense Forces, included anonymous information about more than a million soldiers, including patients with schizophrenia and ASD.

"We found the same results in all three data sets," he says, noting that the ability to replicate the findings across these extensive databases is what makes this study so significant.

Understanding this genetic connection could be a missing link, Dr. Weiser says, and provides a fresh direction for study. The researchers are now taking this research in a clinical direction. For now, though, the findings shouldn't influence the way that doctors treat patients with either illness, he adds.

This work was done in collaboration with researchers at the University of North Carolina, Karolinska Institute in Sweden, Kings College London, and the Israeli Defense Force Medical Corps.


Sleep Deprivation After Trauma Could Prevent PTSD
8/20/2012

Six hours of wakefulness reduces the likelihood of post-traumatic symptoms, a TAU researcher finds

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a severe anxiety condition that can develop after exposure to trauma, such as a car crash or a terrorist attack. Approximately 20 percent of those who have experienced trauma develop the disorder, with symptoms including flashbacks, nightmares, paranoia, and insomnia.

Prof. Joseph Zohar of Tel Aviv University's Sackler Faculty of Medicine, working in collaboration with Prof. Hagit Cohen of Ben-Gurion University, has discovered a simple but effective way of keeping this devastating disorder in check. The researchers found that sleep deprivation for a period of just six hours after exposure to a traumatic event dramatically reduced the risk of PTSD symptoms.

After a traumatic event, patients are often encouraged to "sleep-off" their anxiety and distress, the researchers say. But because memory is a significant component of PTSD, Profs. Zohar and Cohen decided to study what might happen if patients went through a significant period of sleep deprivation instead. Testing their theory in the laboratory, they found that a group of rats made to stay awake after a traumatic experience did not demonstrate any memory of the event later on. A second group that was allowed to sleep after trauma, however, appeared to recall their experiences.

The next stage of this research, which was published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, will be to conduct a pilot study on humans.

For more on this breakthrough in PTSD treatment, see the UPI story: http://www.upi.com/Health_News/2012/07/17/Avoiding-sleep-after-trauma-beneficial/UPI-59991342578264/


One in Three Post-Partum Women Suffers PTSD Symptoms After Giving Birth
8/8/2012

Natural births a major cause of post-traumatic stress, says a TAU researcher

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) develops in individuals who experience highly traumatizing situations such as terrorist attacks and car accidents, but symptoms can also come about after normal life events — including childbirth.

A Tel Aviv University researcher has found that approximately one third of all post-partum women exhibit some symptoms of PTSD, and a smaller percentage develop full-blown PTSD following the ordeal of labor. This surprising finding indicates a relatively high prevalence of the disorder, says Prof. Rael Strous of TAU's Sackler Faculty of Medicine, who completed the study along with Dr. Inbal Shlomi Polachek of the Beer Yaakov Mental Health Center and Liat Harari and Micha Baum of the Sheba Medical Center.

Of those women who developed post-traumatic symptoms, 80 percent opted for natural childbirth without pain relief. Other significant factors identified include the woman's body image (including discomfort with being in an undressed state for the relatively prolonged period of labor and undergoing elective Caesarean sections), fear during labor, and complications in the present and earlier pregnancies and labors.

The study was published in IMAJ, the Israel Medical Association Journal.

A painful reality

The debate over whether or not childbirth qualifies as a "traumatic event" is still controversial. Although childbirth is not a sudden and unexpected event like an accident, childbirth is accompanied by a very real and justified fear of danger, as expectant mothers worry for not just their own safety but also for the health and well-being of their babies, says Prof. Strous.

Researchers interviewed 89 post-partum women between the ages of 20 and 40, first within 2 to 5 days after delivery and then again one month after delivery. They discovered that of these participants, 25.9 percent displayed symptoms of post-trauma, 7.8 percent suffered from partial post-trauma, and 3.4 percent exhibited symptoms of full-blown PTSD. Symptoms included flashbacks of the labor, the avoidance of discussion of the event, physical reactions such as heart palpitations during such discussions, and a reluctance to consider having another child.

According to Prof. Strous, one of the most influential factors was pain management during delivery. Of the women who experienced partial or full post-trauma symptoms, 80 percent had gone through a natural childbirth, without any form of pain relief. "The less pain relief there was, the higher the woman's chances of developing post-partum PTSD," he said. Of the women who did not develop any PTSD symptoms, only 48 percent experienced a natural childbirth.

A full 80 percent of the PTSD group reported feeling discomfort with being unclothed, and 67 percent had previous pregnancies which they described as traumatic. Fear of the labor itself, both in terms of expected pain levels and danger to themselves and their children, was also influential. The researchers discovered to their surprise that support during labor, in the form of a midwife or doula, had no impact when it came to avoiding post-traumatic symptoms. Factors such as socioeconomic and marital status, level of education, and religion also had no effect.

Reading the warning signs

Beyond gathering information about prevalence, Prof. Strous and his fellow researchers wanted to gain insight into possible risk factors for developing post-traumatic symptoms and ascertain methods for minimizing its impact. He suggests that doctors become familiar with the profile of women who are more disposed to suffer from post-traumatic symptoms, and be on the look-out for warning signs after labor. He also advocates additional research into the phenomenon to develop better treatment plans and making more resources available for affected women.

There are some immediate steps medical professionals can take, Prof. Strous says, including better counselling about pain relief and making sure that patients' bodies are properly covered during delivery. "Dignity is a factor that should be taken into account. It's an issue of ethics and professionalism, and now we can see that it does have physical and psychological ramifications," he says.


Predicting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Before it Happens
6/13/2012

TAU researchers use brain imaging to uncover susceptibility to psychological stress and trauma

Most people have intense emotional reactions to traumatizing events like road accidents or combat. But some suffer far longer, caught in the grip of long-term debilitating disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Because doctors cannot predict who will develop these disorders, however, early or preventive intervention is not available. Now, a new project led by researchers at Tel Aviv University seeks to identify pre-traumatic subjects — those who are more susceptible to long-standing disorders if exposed to a traumatic incident.

The project, a joint work between Prof. Talma Hendler of TAU's School of Psychological Sciences, the Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the new Sagol School of Neuroscience, and Prof. Nathan Intrator of TAU's Blavatnik School of Computer Science and the Sagol School of Neuroscience, uses electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the areas of the brain that regulate the emotional response to traumatic stress, then decode the brain functionality which indicates pre- or post trauma psychopathology.It's a powerful and novel approach to probing the susceptible brain and providing ongoing monitoring tailored to each individual.

This ongoing interdisciplinary research was done at the Functional Brain Center in collaboration with the Wohl Institute for Advanced Imaging at the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center.

Taking PTSD personally

The earlier and more accurately PTSD is diagnosed, the more likely a healthcare provider can treat it. And beyond their diagnostic capabilities, the research findings could be used to monitor people who will be at high risk for developing these disorders, such as soldiers in combat units.

Diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders depends on understanding how the brain encodes and regulates emotions. For example, certain combinations of activities in emotional and cognitive brain areas may better indicate an individual's susceptibility to traumatic disorders than studying each area by itself, believes Prof. Hendler. In the last few years, the researchers have published on these issues in leading scientific journals including PNAS and Cerebral Cortex.

To look at the interactions between areas of the brain, study participants were monitored using EEG (which records electrical activity along the scalp) and fMRI (which measures changes in blood oxygenation in the brain) concurrently. Connections between the emotional and cognitive areas of the brain were recorded as subjects were exposed to continuous stimulations designed to cause stress and other emotional effects such as horror and sadness. Using advanced computational algroithms, the researchers identified the brain activity that was connected to the reported emotional experience. This brain marking will provide targets for therapeutic procedures based on a person's individual brain activity.

With these experiments, the researchers hope to improve their ability to read emotional states in the depths of the human brain. While they are currently working with EEG and fMRI, Prof. Intrator hopes that in the later stages of development they will be able to read results collected by EEG alone. Initial findings were recently presented at the prestigious Neural Information Processing Systems Conference and published in the journals Brain Connectivity and Neuroimage.

Diagnostics on the go

Ultimately, the researchers hope to develop a portable brain monitoring machine that will "enable the detection or quantification of the emotional state of people suffering from trauma," allowing for minimally invasive monitoring or diagnosis, says Prof. Intrator. He is working on applying this technology to the diagnosis of additional psychological disorders, including schizophrenia, depression, and attention deficit disorder (ADD) for the better management of these diseases. In the case of ADD, for example, this method could be used to monitor the level of concentration in a patient, and provide feedback that could help to regulate the patient's medicinal needs, such as the dosage of Ritalin.

Some of these projects are part of the newly-formed Israel Brain Technology (IBT) initiative, launched by Israeli President Shimon Peres and run by entrepreneur Rafi Gidron. IBT leverages technology and knowledge from Israeli universities to help Israel become a power player in neurotechnology.


Treating Childhood Anxiety with Computers, Not Drugs
6/11/2012

TAU leads Attention Bias Modification trials to address pediatric anxiety disorders

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, one in eight children suffers from an anxiety disorder. And because many anxious children turn into severely anxious adults, early intervention can have a major impact on a patient's life trajectory. The understandable reluctance to use psychiatric medications when it comes to children means child psychologists are always searching for viable therapeutic alternatives.

Now Prof. Yair Bar-Haim of Tel Aviv University's School of Psychological Sciences and his fellow researchers are pursuing a new method to address childhood anxiety. Based on a computer program, the treatment uses a technique called Attention Bias Modification (ABM) to reduce anxiety by drawing children away from their tendency to dwell on potential threats, ultimately changing their thought patterns. In its initial clinical trial, the program was as effective as medication and cognitive therapy for children — with several distinct advantages.

The results of the trial were reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Computers instead of capsules 

Children are comfortable with computers, explains Prof. Bar-Haim. And because of the potential side effects of medications or the difficulty in obtaining cognitive behavioral therapy, such as the need for highly trained professionals, it is good to have an alternative treatment method. ABM treatments can be disseminated over the Internet or administered by personnel who don't have to be Ph.D.s. "This could be a game-changer for providing treatment," he says.

Anxious individuals have a heightened sensitivity towards threats that the average person would ignore, a sensitivity which creates and maintains anxiety, says Prof. Bar-Haim. One of the ways to measure a patient's threat-related attention patterns is called the dot-probe test. The patient is presented with two pictures or words, one threatening and one neutral. These words then disappear and a dot appears where one of the pictures or words had been, and the patient is asked to press a button to indicate the dot's location. A fast response time to a dot that appears in the place of the threatening picture or word indicates a bias towards threat.

To turn this test into a therapy, the location of the dot target is manipulated to appear more frequently beneath the neutral word or picture. Gradually, the patient begins to focus on that stimulus instead, predicting that this is where the dot will appear — helping to normalize the attention bias pattern and reduce anxiety.

Prof. Bar-Haim and his colleagues enlisted the participation of 40 pediatric patients with ongoing anxiety disorders and divided them into three groups. The first received the new ABM treatment; the second served as a placebo group where the dot appeared equally behind threatening and neutral images; and the third group was shown only neutral stimuli. Patients participated in one session a week for four weeks, completing 480 dot probe trials each session.

The children's anxiety levels were measured before and after the training sessions using interviews and questionnaires. In both the placebo group and neutral images group, researchers found no significant change in the patients' bias towards threatening stimuli. However, in the ABM group, there were marked differences in the participants' threat bias. By the end of the trial, approximately 33 percent of the patients in this group no longer met the diagnostic criteria for anxiety disorder.

New methods for personalized treatment

These indications of the method's success in treating children warrant further investigation, says Prof. Bar-Haim. In collaboration with the National Institute of Mental Health in the US, a large international trial involving his computer program is now being carried out at more than 20 sites across five continents.

The more options that exist for patients, the better that clinicians can tailor treatment for their patient's individual needs, Prof. Bar-Haim observes. There are always patients for whom medication or cognitive therapy is not a viable option, he explains. "Psychological disorders are complex, and not every patient will respond well to every treatment. It's great to have new methods that have a basis in neuroscience and clinical evidence."


Teaching Creativity to Children from a Galaxy Away
5/17/2012

Encouraging "expansive thinking" opens children to creative possibilities, says a TAU researcher

Playing make-believe is more than a childhood pasttime. According to psychologists, it's also crucial to building creativity, giving a child the ability to consider alternative realities and perspectives. And this type of thinking is essential to future development, aiding interpersonal and problem-solving skills and the ability to invent new theories and concepts. That has been shown to be a component of future professional success in fields from the arts to the sciences and business.

But can creativity be taught? Prof. Nira Liberman ofTel Aviv University's School of Psychological Sciences, with her students Maayan Blumenfeld, Boaz Hameiri and Orli Polack, has demonstrated that children can be "primed" for creativity by how they are persuaded to think about and see the world around them. According to their study, one catalyst of creativity is "expansive" thought — encouraging children to think about distant objects and perspectives like the galaxies in the skies above, as opposed to local objects and perspectives in their immediate surroundings.

Thinking "outwards" rather than "inwards" allows children to consider different points of view and think beyond their "here and now" reality, says Prof. Liberman, whose research has been published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. She says that relatively simple exercises can get children in the right frame of mind.

Thinking from the inside out

For their study, the researchers worked with 55 children ages six to nine. Half were shown a series of photographs that started with nearby objects and gradually progressed to more distant ones — from a close-up of the pencil sitting on their desk progressing to a picture of the Milky Way galaxy. The other half was shown exactly the same photographs but in reverse order, to induce a "contractive" frame of mind.

After viewing the series of photographs, the children completed creativity tests, including the Tel Aviv Creativity Test (TACT), in which the participant is given an object and asked to name the different uses they can think of for it. Points are given for the number of uses mentioned and the creativity of the use. The children in the expansive mind-set group scored significantly better on all of the creativity measures, coming up with a greater number of uses and more creative uses for the objects.

Spatial distance, as opposed to spatial proximity, was clearly shown to enhance creative performance, says Prof. Liberman. Increased creativity was a direct result of priming the children in the first group to think expansively rather than contractively.

This study was the first to focus on child rather than adult creativity in this type of research. In the past, Prof. Liberman and her fellow researchers investigated how creativity in adults may be enhanced by encouraging them to consider the distant future and unlikely events. Overall, "psychological distance can help to foster creativity because it encourages us to think abstractly," says Prof. Liberman of her findings.

Flexing creative muscles

This study adds to recent research by social psychologists that shows creativity is a trainable skill, not only an innate talent. Though some people are undeniably more creative than others,there are benefits from "priming" your mind to think more creatively by investigating new perspectives and thinking abstractly.

"Creativity is basically about the flexibility of thought of your mental system," explains Prof. Liberman. Like the physical stretching that makes your body more flexible, mental exercises such as problem solving can train the mind to improve its creative thinking.

"The flexibility of your mental operations is important because it underlies many human qualities, such as empathy, self regulation, problem-solving, and the ability to make new discoveries," she adds.


Finding Reason in Delusion
3/27/2012

TAU research advocates behavior-based treatment as an option of dementia patients

Dementia — an acute loss of cognitive ability — can be marked by memory loss, decreased attention span, and disorientation. It occurs in severe disorders such as Alzheimer's disease. Despite the fact that the condition is common, especially among older persons, there is still a lack of effective treatment.

According to Prof. Jiska Cohen-Mansfield of Tel Aviv University' Herczeg Institute on Aging and Sackler Faculty of Medicine, dementia sufferers are often prescribed psychotropic drugs to mitigate symptoms such as delusions. But this tactic can cause more harm than good, she says. Many of the delusions experienced by dementia patients may have a rational basis and could be more effectively treated through behavioral therapy than by medications, suggests Prof.Cohen-Mansfield. A better understanding of delusions has direct implications for the care and perception of those who suffer from dementia.

The study, done in collaboration with Prof. Hava Golander of the Department of Nursing and Drs. Joshua Ben-Israel and Doron Garfinkel of the Shoham Medical Center, was published in the journal Psychiatry Research.

A rational basis for delusion

The researchers examined six common categories of delusion, including fears of abandonment, suspicions that patients' possessions were being stolen, and feelings that they were not "at home." The participants in the study were 74 adults from nine nursing homes in Israel who had received a diagnosis of dementia. The research team questioned caretakers, including registered nurses and nursing home staff, who had daily interactions with the patients.

Researchers assessed elements including the patient's mental state, behavioral pathology, and incidents of past trauma. Caretakers were asked to describe not only the patient's delusions, but to explain the circumstances under which they emerged. Taking into account all these parameters, researchers discovered that a large percentage of the delusions that the caregivers described seemed to have logical explanations. Some were even the result of the patient re-experiencing traumas they had suffered earlier in their lives.

"If you begin to think about these delusions from the point of view of the dementia patient, you begin to understand that their delusions are explainable reflections of the reality they live in," explains Prof. Cohen-Mansfield. For example, for patients who felt that they were not at "home," the nursing home did not satisfy their definition of home. Anxiety often accompanied separation from the outside environment or from their loved ones — a rational response.

A better quality of care

These findings can have an impact on the way heath care providers and family members respond to dementia patients, says Prof. Cohen-Mansfield. Characterizing their delusions as "psychotic" puts them in the category of severe mental illness, which is frequently inappropriate. Instead, caretakers can devise methods to work with patients that take context into account.

Prof. Cohen-Mansfield also notes that participants in the study were highly medicated, with 47 percent on antidepressants, a third taking sedatives/hypnotics, and 13.5 percent on antipsychotic medications. "If you can ascertain why the patient is experiencing these 'delusions,' you can create another treatment plan that addresses issues of orientation," she explains.

In people with dementia, delusions do not really match the psychiatric definition of psychosis. A closer analysis of these behaviors is likely to promote empathy, understanding, and ultimately a more humane and compassionate treatment, the researchers concluded.


TAU Establishes New School of Psychological Sciences
3/1/2012

Since it was established 40 years ago with three faculty members and 30 students, Tel Aviv University's psychology department has grown to become the largest in Israel, regularly ranking in the top 100 of psychology departments worldwide. Now, in recognition of the department's scientific contribution, methodological merit, and international standing, the department formally became the School of Psychological Sciences last December.

A new building for the School will house some of TAU's most influential researchers and degree programs, allowing it to grow in new and important directions, says Prof. Yair Bar-Haim, the head of the School. "Psychology is a pivotal area of research and education on this campus," he says. "With a greater infrastructure, we can develop further, deepening our cross-disciplinary links with brain studies across the sciences."

The planned facilities will add new equipment and state-of-the-art laboratories, permit the expansion of clinic offerings to the community, increase teaching rooms, and provide space for top researchers and students from Israel and abroad.

A major player in interdisciplinary research

At its core, psychology is an interdisciplinary science that draws from neurology, biology, behavioral, and even computer sciences. The field continues to mature, comprising the spectrum from pure science to practical application, says Prof. Bar-Haim.

The establishment of the School of Psychological Sciences and the recent opening of the Sagol School of Neuroscience underscore TAU's dedication to all aspects of brain research. The School of Psychological Sciences is set to play a significant role in the interdisciplinary neuroscience school, which brings together 70 groups of researchers from seven faculties.

A new Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology–Biology, with a focus in neuroscience, will be a collaborative effort between the two entities. It will also be the largest bachelor's program in the field of brain research at TAU. The program, which has one of the highest admission standards on campus, accepted 60 students for the inaugural 2011/2012 academic year.

"The new School for Psychological Sciences will play a major role in the new Sagol School of Neurosciences," says Prof. Uri Ashery, the Head of the recently inducted Sagol School of Neurosciences. "The integration of the interdisciplinary research and the joint B.Sc. program in Psychology–Biology will help to define the nature of neuroscience at Tel Aviv University and in our understanding of neuropsychiatric disorders."

Core of excellence

With its new status, the school will continue to attract some of the best minds in psychology, advancing its reputation for excellence in research and education. Leading the first-class psychological education available at TAU, students at all degree levels are able to gain clinical experience through practicum classes at up to 60 mental health organizations in the Tel Aviv area. This training program prepares graduates for roles as mental health professionals as well as legislators and policy makers.

Recently, TAU in collaboration with the Weisman Institute and Bar-Ilan University was named an I-CORE (Israeli Centers of Research Excellence) in Advanced Approaches in Cognitive Science. I-CORE, a new initiative by the Israeli government, is designed to support the country's leading research institutions. Six of the nine researchers named as TAU principle investigators of this I-CORE category are from the School of Psychological Sciences, including Dr. Roy Mukamel, Profs. Thalma Handler, Galit Yovel, Marius Usher, Nira Liberman, and Yair Bar-Haim.

For more information on the new School of Psychological Sciences at TAU, visit the School's webpage at:
http://socsci.tau.ac.il/psy-eng/


Childhood Hypersensitivity Linked to OCD
12/27/2011

Adult onset could be connected to oral and tactile sensitivities in childhood, TAU research finds

In childhood, rituals like regular schedules for meal, bath, and bed times are a healthy part of behavioral development. But combined with oral and tactile sensitivities, such as discomfort at the dentist or irritation caused by specific fabrics, these rituals could be an early warning sign of adult Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

According to Prof. Reuven Dar of Tel Aviv University's Department of Psychology, hypersensitivity and excessive adherence to childhood rituals may foreshadow the onset of OCD as the child ages. He first suspected the link while working with OCD patients who reported sensitivity to touch and taste as children. Now, in the first comprehensive study of its kind, Prof. Dar and his fellow researchers have established a direct correlation between sensory processing — the way the nervous system manages incoming sensory information — and ritualistic and obsessive-compulsive behaviors.

The study, which appears in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, suggests that when children experience heightened levels of sensitivity, they develop ritualistic behaviors to better cope with their environment. In the long term, this is one potential pathway to OCD.

Connecting the behavioral dots

Two studies were devised to map the connection between sensory processing, rituals, and OCD. In the first, parents of kindergarten children were asked to complete three questionnaires on their child's behaviour — their level of ritualism, such as the need to repeat certain acts or to order objects in a particular way; their level of anxiety, with questions relating to reaction to strangers, worrying about outcomes of events, and attachment to family members; and last, their reactions to everyday sensory events such as being touched or exposed to unusual tastes or smells.

In the second study, the researchers asked 314 adult participants to answer surveys online in relation to their OCD tendencies, their anxiety levels, and their past and current sensitivity to oral and tactile stimulation.

Results from both studies indicated a strong connection between compulsive tendencies and hypersensitivity. In children, hypersensitivity was an indicator of ritualism, whereas in adults it was related to OCD symptoms. As a whole, these findings provide preliminary support for the idea that such sensitivities are a precursor to OCD symptoms. When children are extremely sensitive to certain types of touch or smell, they can feel that they are being attacked, or that the environment is threatening them, Prof. Dar believes. Ritualism could develop as a defence mechanism, helping these children to regain a sense of control, which is also a symptom of adults with OCD.

Identifying the turning point

Next Prof. Dar hopes to conduct a longitudinal study to better understand the connection between hypersensitivity in childhood and adult OCD, following a large sample of children who experience oral and tactile sensitivities through to adulthood.

Of course, Prof. Dar says, all children have particular habits and preferences, and they're not all precursors to OCD. So what should parents watch for to correctly characterize normal and potentially pathological behavior? "If you see that a child is very rigid with rituals, becoming anxious if unable to engage in this behavior, it is more alarming," he explains. Also, age is a factor. A habit exhibited by a five- or six-year-old is not necessarily a predictor of OCD. If the same behavior continues to the ages of eight and above, it could be a warning sign, especially if accompanied by anxiety or distress.


Are the Anxious Oblivious?
12/20/2011

TAU study finds anxiety-ridden individuals are less sensitive to their environments

Anxious people have long been classified as "hypersensitive" — they're thought to be more fearful and feel threatened more easily than their counterparts. But new research from Tel Aviv University shows that the anxious may not be hypersensitive at all — in fact, they may not be sensitive enough.

As part of a study on how the brain processes fear in anxious and non-anxious individuals, Tahl Frenkel, a Ph.D. candidate in TAU's School of Psychological Sciences and the Adler Center for Research in Child Developmental and Psychopathology, working with her supervisor Prof. Yair Bar-Haim, measured brain activity as study participants were shown images designed to induce fear and anxiety. Using an EEG to measure electrical activity caused by the neuronal activity that represents deep processing of these stimuli, the researchers discovered that the anxious group was actually less stimulated by the images than the non-anxious group.

The results of the study were recently published in Biological Psychology.

Measuring fear in the subconscious

Surprisingly, anxious study participants weren't shown to be as physiologically sensitive to subtle changes in their environment as less fearful individuals, Frenkel explains. She theorizes that anxious people could have a deficit in their threat evaluation capabilities — necessary for effective decision-making and fear regulation — leading to an under-reaction to subtle threatening stimuli. Non-anxious individuals seem to have a subconscious "early warning system," allowing them to prepare for evolving threats. Essentially, anxious people are "surprised" by fearful stimuli that non-anxious individuals have already subconsciously noticed, analyzed, and evaluated.

To get a more accurate picture of both behavioral and neural reactions to fear-inducing stimuli, the researchers drew participants from a group of 240 undergraduate students at the university. Using the Speilberger's State-Trait Anxiety Inventory trait scale, they identified the 10 percent "most anxious" individuals and 10 percent "least anxious" individuals to participate in the final study.

In the first part of their study, the researchers measured behavioral responses to fear-inducing stimuli. A set of pictures, featuring a person looking progressively more fearful on a scale of 1-100, was shown to the participants. When shown the sequence of pictures, anxious people were quicker to respond to the fear in the subject's face. They identified a face as being "fearful" at a rating of only 32, while non-anxious people did not describe the same face as fearful until it reached a rating of 39.

But the EEG data tells a different story, Frenkel says. The researchers also measured the participants' brain waves by EEG while they were being shown the photographs and discovered that non-anxious individuals completed an in-depth processing of fear-inducing stimuli that informed their behavioral response, whereas anxious individuals did not.

Compensating for an "insensitive" brain

When confronted with a potential threat, Frenkel concluded, non-anxious people unconsciously notice subtle changes in the environment before they consciously recognize the threat. Lacking such preparation, anxious individuals often react more strongly, as the threat takes them more "by surprise."

"The EEG results tell us that what looks like hypersensitivity on a behavioral level is in fact the anxious person's attempt to compensate for a deficit in the sensitivity of their perception," she explains.


The Age of "Coming Out" Is Now Dramatically Younger
10/10/2011

Gay, lesbian and bisexual teens find wider family support, says TAU researcher

The repeal of the U.S. military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy and the legalization of gay marriage in New York state represent great strides for the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people in America. And according to a Tel Aviv University researcher, such social progress is not the only significant shift.

The number of LGB teens who "come out" to family and friends has grown dramatically in the past two decades, says Dr. Guy Shilo of TAU's Bob Shapell School of Social Work. In 1991, the average coming-out age was 25. But as of 2010, he notes, it is 16 years old — a dramatic shift.

In a new study published in Family Relations on the stress factors and the mental health of sexual minorities, Dr. Shilo observes that family support and acceptance is becoming increasingly essential for LGB youth. "Family support is a crucial variable in the mental health of young LGBs, higher than peer support," says Dr. Shilo, who notes that it is difficult for a LGB teen to separate themselves from unsupportive families because they are still dependent on that family for their welfare.

Family by choice?

Dr. Shilo and Prof. Riki Savaya conducted a study of 461 self-identified LGB youth, aged 16-23, to examine how stress related to being part of a minority group was impacting their mental health. To determine stress levels, the researchers investigated how participants felt about their family, friends and peer support, as well as their connection to the LGB community as an emotional support. Participants were evaluated for mental distress and feelings of well-being — the polar negative and positive of mental health.

While peer support certainly had an impact on the mental health of participants, researchers discovered that family support was more central to their sense of well-being. A lack of family support was found to significantly heighten mental distress among the study participants, which can lead to depression. In addition, researchers found that family acceptance had the strongest positive impact on self-acceptance of sexual orientation.

Adult LGBs who lack the support of their families, explains Dr. Shilo, often react by leaving their families behind. They build separate lives which can include "families of choice," where peer groups, mainly from the LGB community, form an alternative family structure give each other the same emotional support and sense of belonging that a family is meant to provide. But this is not always a viable option at a younger age.

Making a social change

Today, more adolescents are open about their sexual orientation — and the younger they are, the more important family connections tend to be. The average 16-year-old is still in school and depends on family for financial support, food and shelter. "They can't just get up and go," Dr. Shilo says.

The tendency of LGBs to come out earlier in life derives from social and cultural progress, Dr. Shilo explains. Most adult GLB's knew they were gay, lesbian or bisexual at the age of nine or ten. The increasing respect and recognition of the rights of sexual minorities have provided the encouragement to "come out" at an earlier age.

In such an atmosphere, it is important to create a supportive and accepting social environment with additional social resources, says Dr. Shilo, who works with Beit Dror, a shelter for runaway LGB youth in central Tel Aviv supported by the Municipality and the Ministry of Welfare, and the Israel Gay Youth Organization, which provides social groups for LGB youth and young adults.


A Shot of Cortisone Stops Traumatic Stress
10/4/2011

TAU discovers a quick injection can prevent PTSD in 60% who experience trauma

As soldiers return home from tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, America must cope with the toll that war takes on mental health. But the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is becoming increasingly expensive, and promises to escalate as yet another generation of veterans tries to heal its psychological wounds.

New hope for preventing the development of PTSD has been uncovered by Prof. Joseph Zohar of Tel Aviv University's Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Sheba Medical Center, in collaboration with Prof. Hagit Cohen from Ben-Gurion University — and the key is a single dose of a common medication.

When a person suffers trauma, the body naturally increases its secretion of cortisone. Taking this natural phenomenon into account, Prof. Zohar set out to discover what a single extra dose of cortisone could do, when administered up to six hours after test subjects experienced a traumatizing event. The results, which will be published in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology in October 2011, indicate that the likelihood that the patient will later develop PTSD is reduced by 60 percent.

Opening the window of opportunity

In most psychiatric conditions, it is impossible to establish a precise point of time at which the disorder manifested, Prof. Zohar says. But PTSD is unique in that is has an easily established timeline, beginning from the moment a patient experiences trauma. This makes PTSD eligible for treatment in the "golden hours" — a medical term that defines the precious few hours in which treatment can be most beneficial following a trauma, heart attack, stroke, or medical event. Receiving treatment in this window of opportunity can be critical.

In their animal models, Prof. Zohar and his fellow researchers first began treating PTSD in the window of opportunity up to six hours after a traumatic event. Two groups of rats were exposed to the smell of a cat, and one group was treated with cortisone after the event.

Following promising results with the rats, the researchers initiated a double-blind study in an emergency room, in which trauma victims entering the hospital were randomly assigned to receive a placebo or the cortisone treatment. Follow-up exams took place two weeks, one month, and three months after the event. Those patients who had received a shot of cortisone were more than sixty percent less likely to develop PTSD, they discovered.

Mimicking Mother Nature

When searching for a treatment method for PTSD, Prof. Zohar took his cue from Mother Nature. Most people who survive a traumatic experience don't develop PTSD because the cortisone that our body naturally produces protects us from developing the condition. But the right dose of cortisone at the right time could prove a source of secondary prevention for PTSD, he posited, helping along a natural process.

His approach also may circumvent the harm caused by dosing traumatised patients with other pharmaceuticals. In the emergency room, traumatized patients are often given medications such as Valium or Xanax, aimed at calming them down. In fact, Prof. Zohar says, these pills interfere with our natural and potent recovery process, hindering the secretion of cortisone. "Looking at the long term effect, people who received these medications had a greater chance of developing PTSD than those who did not," he explains.

Prof. Zohar will expand this small pilot study with a $1.3 million dollar grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. He and his fellow researchers are teaming up with Prof. Rachel Yehuda of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, who will help them uncover the biochemical processes and underlying mechanisms of cortisone treatments for traumatized patients.

People who suffer from PTSD are haunted by their traumatic memories; for them, the past is always present, Prof. Zohar explains. Cortisone, given at the right dose at the right time, may alleviate the power of these traumatic memories by preventing their consolidation.


"Finding Yourself" on Facebook
9/27/2011

Yes, parents: The Internet can be crucial to a teen's psychological development, says a TAU researcher

American teenagers are spending an ever-increasing amount of time online, much to the chagrin of parents who can't seem to tear their children away from Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. But despite the dangers that lurk on the web, the time that teens spend on the Internet can actually be beneficial to their healthy development, says a Tel Aviv University researcher.

Prof. Moshe Israelashvili of TAU's Jaime and Joan Constantiner School of Education, with his M.A. student Taejin Kim and colleague Dr. Gabriel Bukobza, studied 278 teens, male and female, from schools throughout Israel. They found that many teens were using the Internet as a tool for exploring questions of personal identity, successfully building their own future lives using what they discover on the Web.

Prof. Israelashvili's research, which was published in the Journal of Adolescence, encourages parents and educators to look at engagement with the online world as beneficial for teens. Social networking, he says, is a positive example of Internet use: "Facebook use is not in the same category as gambling or gaming." As a result, Prof. Israelashvili says, researchers should redefine the characteristics of the disorder called "Internet addiction" in adolescents.

Redefining internet addiction

The TAU researchers asked the teens to rate themselves in terms of Internet use, ego clarification, and self-understanding, and how well they related to their peer group. The researchers discovered that there was a negative correlation between Internet overuse and the teens' levels of ego development and clarity of self-perception. Prof. Israelashvili refers to it as an indication that some Internet use is destructive and isolating while some is informative and serves a socializing function.

These results show that the current understanding of adolescent Internet addiction demands redefinition. Psychiatrists now classify an "Internet addict" as a person who spends more than 38 hours on the Internet every week. But it's the quality, not the quantity that matters, argues Prof. Israelashvili. The researchers determined that many teens who participated in the study met the psychiatric standard of "Internet addiction," but were actually using the Internet as a tool to aid in their journey of self-discovery.

Prof. Israelashvili says that there are two different kinds of teenage "Internet addicts." The first group is composed of adolescents who really are addicted, misusing the Internet with things like online gaming and gambling or pornographic websites, isolating themselves from the world around them. The other group of teens can be defined as "self clarification seekers," whose use of the Internet helps them to comprehensively define their own identities and place in the world. These teens tend to use the Internet for social networking and information gathering, such as on news sites or Twitter.

Adding in family time

Parents and educators should change the conversations they have with teens about Internet use, the researchers urge. The Internet is a big part of our modern lifestyle, and both adults and children are spending more time there. As a result, what is important is how that time is used. Students must learn to use the Internet in a healthy way — as a source of knowledge about themselves in relation to their peers around the world, recommends Prof. Israelashvili.

If parents still don't like the amount of time their teens are spending in front of the computer, they should consider becoming an information resource for their adolescent children, encouraging a healthy flow of conversation in the household itself. "Too many parents are too preoccupied," says Prof. Israelashvili. "They demand high academic achievements, and place less importance on teaching their children how to face the world." Teens won't give up the Internet, but they may spend less time online if family interactions meet some of the same needs.

By the time teens reach the age of 18 or 19, they enter a new phase of life called "emerging adulthood," in which they take the lessons of their adolescence and implement them to build a more independent life. If they have spent their teenage years worrying only about their academic performance or gaming, they won't be able to manage well during their emerging adulthood and might have difficulties in making personal decisions and relate well to the world around them, Prof. Israelashvili concludes.


Finding Relief in Ritual
9/22/2011

What do a patient with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a basketball star, and an animal in captivity have in common? According to new research from Tel Aviv University, they share a clear behavioral link that reduces stress.

In a new study, Prof. David Eilam and his graduate student Hila Keren of TAU's Department of Zoology at the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences found that repetitive behavior in general — and especially ritualistic-like behavior — is not only a human phenomenon but also one in the animal world. They concluded that ritualistic behavior in both humans and animals developed as a way to induce calm and manage stress caused by unpredictability and uncontrollability — heightening our belief that we are in control of a situation that is otherwise out of our hands.

Pursued in collaboration with Prof. Pascal Boyer of Washington University and Dr. Joel Mort of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, the research has been published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.

Heads or tails?

Almost every human and animal activity can be divided into three parts, Prof. Eilam explains — "preparatory," "functional," and "confirmatory." The functional aspect is defined by the specific actions that must occur in order to complete a task. But the preparatory and confirmatory actions, dubbed "head" and "tail" actions by the researchers, are not strictly required in order to get the job done. We complete them both before and after the central task,  but they are not necessarily related to it. Individuals complete different head and tail activities for every task.

During the course of their study, Prof. Eilam and his fellow researchers watched and analyzed videotapes of people completing common tasks, such as putting on a shirt, locking a car, or making coffee, as well as  basketball players completing a free-throw. In the case of basketball players, explains Prof. Eilam, all they actually need to do to complete their action is throw the ball. So why the preceding ritualistic behavior, such as bouncing the ball precisely six times?

"The routine they perform in the moments before shooting the ball is a method to focus their full concentration and control their actions." Prof. Eilam says. It's also an essential part of sports psychology. If players feel that completing their repetitive actions will enhance their performance, they tend to be more successful. This could include anything from locker room antics to LeBron James' infamous pre-game chalk toss.

Even in the context of daily activities, head and tail activities can be differentiated quite easily from the functional action in between. However, they are exaggerated in OCD sufferer who might check and recheck whether the stove has been turned off, for example. These idiosyncrasies are individual to each person, says Prof. Eilam, who notes that rituals are like fingerprints — unique to each individual.

Defining pathology

While everyone exhibits repetitive behavior, not everyone's behavior is obsessive, the researchers say. OCD patients present a pathological tendency towards repetitive behavior or thought patterns.

OCD patients were observed to engage in more "tail" activity than basketball players who displayed more “head” activity, says Prof. Eilam. The former suffer from a feeling of incompleteness — they are unsure  whether or not their task has been completed, and compulsive behavior is driven by a need to verify the action. Unlike a free-throw, where there is a distinct cue — throwing the ball — that signals the end of the action, a common compulsive behavior, such as washing one's hands, might not have as clear an ending. There is no external reference to indicate "absolute clean."

Because those who suffer from OCD can set themselves complicated routines, they often cannot trust that they have fully completed an action, thereby extending the confirmatory tail phase of an action. This is the key difference between normal and pathological rituals, Prof. Eilam says.

Message to Gay Soldiers: It's Your Army Too
8/18/2011

Mandatory sensitivity training should be an essential part of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" repeal, says TAU researcher

As the U.S. military prepares for the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (DADT), policymakers are looking to other military bodies around the world that have successfully integrated gay, lesbian and bisexual (GLB) soldiers into military service. Now a new study from Tel Aviv University suggests that an integrated support and education dimension is essential to the successful assimilation of these soldiers into the U.S. armed forces.

Dr. Guy Shilo of TAU's Bob Shapell School of Social Work has completed the only quantitative study detailing the LGB experience in the military. While the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) technically maintain an open-door policy to service by LGB soldiers, soldiers continue to experience anxiety and harassment surrounding their sexual orientation, Dr. Shilo found. The best solution is an educational system for all service people across the military spectrum, he concludes.

Dr. Shilo's original research was contained in a report to the Pentagon about the repeal of DADT. This year's study, a follow-up to Dr. Shilo's 2006 report on the situation of LGB soldiers in the IDF, was commissioned by and presented to the Israeli Gay Youth Organization.

Harassment in the field

Until the 1990's, outwardly gay soldiers were subject to several restrictions on their military service in Israel. They were frequently discharged from service, prohibited from serving in high security positions, or sent to mental health officers to determine their fitness to serve, Dr. Shilo explains. And while such official restrictions have since been abolished, LGB soldiers still report that they are treated with intolerance.

After hearing word of continued harassment and stress in openly-gay soldiers, Dr. Shilo and his fellow researchers developed a quantitative study, designed to survey the experience of LGB soldiers. They used the same parameters as those defined for female soldiers in the military and sexual minorities in other populations, such as at school and work. The criteria included verbal, sexual and physical harassment. Questionnaires were administered in person and online, and participants included LGB soldiers from a wide variety of positions including combat, intelligence and administrative staff.

Most participants reported experiencing verbal abuse, either indirect or specific. There were also reports of physical and sexual abuse based on sexual orientation. Many participants claimed that while they had already come out to family and friends in their civilian life, fear of discrimination pushed them back into the closet in their military lives. Leading this double existence can create massive strain, Dr. Shilo explains.

After first presenting the IDF with the statistics in 2006, this year's follow-up revealed that despite the military's now official support of LGB soldiers, there has been very little change in the field — harassment and stress levels remain high. "Despite the publicity of the research, there was little change," Dr. Shilo says. The military environment is one of "macho" attitudes and strict hierarchy, he adds. This environment has a negative impact on the LGB experience.

Sending a positive message to LGB soldiers

In the quest to repeal DADT, the American military has much to learn from the IDF's experiences, says Dr. Shilo. The successful repeal of DADT depends not only on a change of policy, but a correction of perception, attitude, and behavior towards openly gay service people. "Most debate on repealing DADT revolves around its predicted impact on military performance and the cohesion of individual units," he says. "But it is imperative to think about the impact on LGB soldiers themselves, and to ensure that they have equal opportunities." Moving forward, American officials should never underestimate the power of education, he counsels.

The IDF offers optional sensitivity training geared towards sexual orientation, but this has had little effect. The training should be mandatory, much like sensitivity training towards religious or racial minorities and female soldiers, Dr. Shilo suggests. And if commanders are going to ask soldiers about their sexual orientation, the soldiers must feel confident that the information will be used to ensure their safety rather than expose them to harm and harrassment.

In Europe, says Dr. Shilo, some militaries actively recruit for new soldiers among the LGB community. The Netherlands, for example, runs an advertising campaign dedicated to attracting LGB youth by highlighting their equal capabilities in a military setting. This kind of campaign forces an about-face in terms of the message it sends to potential LGB recruits, he explains. The message is not, "You can serve in our army." Instead, it should be translated into the more positive “It's your army too."


Leaving Anger on the Field
7/6/2011

We know that physical education teaches children about fitness and encourages them to live a healthy lifestyle. Now a Tel Aviv University researcher has statistical evidence that sports participation is also beneficial to a child’s cognitive, emotional and behavioral well-being.

Keren Shahar, a Ph.D. student at Tel Aviv University's Bob Shapell School of Social Work working under the supervision of Prof. Tammie Ronen and Prof. Michael Rosenbaum, says that over the course of her study, which included 649 children from low socioeconomic backgrounds, a continuous program of various sports helped improve self-control and discipline and lowered feelings of aggression in the children overall.

Her research was recently presented at TAU’s Renata Adler Memorial Research Center for Child Welfare and Protection Conference.

A prescription for a healthier body and mind

"We set out to determine whether sports training would have a positive impact on these children by lowering aggression, and how this result can be achieved," explains Shahar. It would be more effective than verbal therapy, she says, because while verbal therapy encourages children to control their behavior, research indicates that it does not reduce negative emotions. The introduction of sport, however, is able to reduce aggressive behavior as a result of quelling negative emotions.

In 25 schools across Israel, Shahar and her fellow researchers analyzed a 24-week-long after-school program based on sports. Half the participants comprised a control group who did not receive sports instruction, and the other half were systematically introduced to a variety of sports for five hours a week. Three times a week, students ranging from grades 3-6 played group sports such as basketball or soccer. Twice a week, they participated in martial arts, including judo and karate.

After 24 weeks of programming, Shahar compared questionnaires and evaluations executed at the beginning of the program with the same tests administered at the end. Her results demonstrated an improvement in traits relating to participants’ self-control, such as self-observation, problem-solving skills, and delayed gratification — which ultimately led to a decrease in the incidence of aggression. Only those children who exhibited higher levels of self-control also demonstrated the decline in aggression.

Boys benefit most

Girls had a much weaker response to sports programming than their male classmates, Shahar's research showed. Statistically, there was little change in the female population. Shahar reasons that girls do not often suffer from the same aggression problems as boys, and are less likely to exhibit a passion for sport.

But the research still applies, Shahar adds. The key is to introduce children to something that they love to do and in which they have a compelling interest. "Find something that motivates them," she counsels. A strong connection with any activity gives children a sense of purpose and decreases the likelihood that they will "act out" their behavioral problems.

Those Aching Joints Could Be in Your Genes
7/5/2011

A common complaint, back pain is one of the many side effects of aging. Over three quarters of the population experience it at some point, and until now, researchers have had little conclusive proof of the causes and mechanisms of the pain.

New research from Prof. Gregory Livshits of Tel Aviv University's Department of Anatomy and Anthropology at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine, however, shows that genetics are a major contributing factor to this pain — and common back pain complaints may have different genetic origins. The results of their study can help identify the different mechanisms involved in back pain and lead to more effective treatment options.

The research, pursued in collaboration with a team of scientists at Kings College, London led by Prof. Tim Spector and Dr. Fran Williams, was recently published in the journal Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.

Identical twins, identical pains

Our two-footed anatomy causes strain and subsequent deterioration of the muscular skeletal system, as do factors such as weight or physical exertion. The team’s research shows genetics play a key role in lower back pain and the deterioration of intervertebral discs of the spine as well. More surprisingly, Prof. Livshits says, lower back pain and disk degeneration do not always overlap, and are caused by different genetic factors.

Preliminary testing done in Israel more than 10 years ago gave scientists their first clue to the connection between genetics and back pain. A study conducted on Arabic families revealed recurring patterns of lower back pain in family members — many relatives of the same family would develop the same symptoms, even at a young age.

To further test these observations, Prof. Livshits and his team looked at a sample twin population of 2,500 individuals, comprising both identical and non-identical female twins. They tested for several potential risk factors, such as smoking, weight, physical work, vertebral disc degeneration disease as well as genetic predisposition. Researchers relied on MRIs of the spine; radiographic assessment of the body lean, fat and bone mass; and blood samples for DNA extraction, genotyping and testing blood for potential biomarkers associated with joint disease.

In non-identical twins who share half of their genetic make-up, patients were almost three times more likely to suffer from back pain if their twin did so as well. In identical twins, who share all of their genes, the patient was six times more likely to have joint disease if their twin experienced the same joint disease.

Refining genetic testing

Although the degeneration of intervertebral discs is often associated with lower back pain, researchers discovered that the two conditions could exist independently, and are also caused by different genetic factors. "We have genetic factors that affect the rate and extent of the degeneration of our discs. In fact, the genetic factors are second only to age," explains Prof. Livshits. "On the other side, we have different genetic factors that independently cause lower back pain. These are mechanisms not involved in spine degeneration."

This discovery could revolutionize the study and treatment of back pain, says Prof. Livshits. More research on the genetic causes of back pain is still required, he notes, and a broader genome search of affected and non-affected individuals is necessary.

The next step for Prof. Livshits will be an international effort that spans university labs in a number of countries, creating a consortium of research groups. Together, they will be able to combine their efforts to analyze large sets of data in the quest to solve the mysteries associated with this common complaint.

In It to Win It?
4/11/2011

Pathological gambling addiction is surprisingly common in the U.S., afflicting as many as 3.4% of all adults. Like other addictions, it is highly disabling both to the individual and to society, often leading to suicide, job loss, and criminal behavior. It affects more men than women and can become worse over time.

Scientists have found that a wide range of drugs can be effective for treating this disorder in the short term, including Naltrexone, used to treat alcohol addiction. Now, psychiatrist Prof. Pinhas Dannon of Tel Aviv University's Sackler Faculty of Medicine is recommending an extended treatment regimen for optimal results.

For best success in kicking the gambling habit, Prof. Dannon says, drug therapy with Naltrexone should last for at least two years and be complemented with other treatments, including group therapy. Prof. Dannon presented preliminary results from his new clinical findings at the EPA 2011: 19th European Congress of Psychiatry this March.

Two years to stick

Earlier studies reported that after six months of treatment, a majority of the gamblers would not go back to gambling. Prof. Dannon believes that a longer course of treatment is more effective.

"The initial results were too optimistic," Prof. Dannon says. His data indicates that a drug regimen lasting two years keeps 80 percent of gamblers "gamble-free" over a four-year period. By contrast, only 30 percent of gamblers who were treated over a six-month period remained gamble-free four years later.

The preliminary study, conducted in 2006 and 2007, was encouraging, Prof. Dannon says, but for long-term effectiveness gambling addicts need to stick out a course of treatment for at least two years in order for Naltrexone to work most efficiently.

A holistic approach

Complementary treatments such as group therapy and regular attendance at Gamblers' Anonymous meetings can also help the addict lead a healthier, gambling-free life.

During his career Prof. Dannon has also conducted extensive research on other kinds of addiction, including Internet addiction. One of his recent patients was addicted to the Facebook game Farmville, neglecting her two young children to play it. While Facebook poker and Farmville can be addictive, these obsessions can be treated differently than those of hard-core gamblers who risk their marriages, houses and careers. For milder addictions, group therapy and professional counselling might be all the help that's needed.

"Gambling addiction is a chronic disorder," Prof Dannon concludes. "We need much more time to treat these patients. They require careful monitoring and holistic treatments over the longer term to avoid relapse."

Prof. Dannon has just authored a seminal book on behavioral addictions, Are We All Addicts?, published by Ramot–Tel Aviv University Press.


Overcoming the "Fear of Insignificance"
2/14/2011

In the not-too-distant past, young people aspired to become lawyers and doctors. Now they yearn to achieve the celebrity of a Mark Zuckerberg or Oprah Winfrey — and these goals extend to adults as well. This has wreaked havoc with our self-image, says a Tel Aviv University psychologist, and undermined our sense of self-worth.

Extensive research from Dr. Carlo Strenger of Tel Aviv University's Department of Psychology demonstrates that people over the past ten years have been suffering from an increasing fear of their own "insignificance," something he first recognized in his own clinical practice. Noticing a surge of this fear in his patients, he began an interdisciplinary research project on the phenomenon.

His findings are presented in a new book, The Fear of Insignificance: Searching for Meaning in the Twenty-first Century (Palgrave Macmillan), which illustrates his decade-long investigation into an unprecedented increase in levels of anxiety and depression. It's the first study of its kind to address the issue on a large scale.

The evolution of "homo globalis": Hot or not?

The phenomenon of global angst in the last 10 years is well established by research findings, he notes, but it has never been analyzed and explained in its entirety. "To see the whole elephant and not just its parts," he says, "you need a wide-ranging interdisciplinary framework."

The research reported in his book integrates hundreds of research projects, from economic models to sociological studies and experimental existential psychology. Strenger concludes that the fear of insignificance is due global access — comparing ourselves with the most "significant" people around the world.

"The impact of the global infotainment network on the individual is to blame," says Strenger. "A new species is born: homo globalis — global man —and we are defined by our intimate connection to the global infotainment network, which has turned ranking and rating people on scales of wealth and celebrity into an obsession."

In the past being a lawyer or doctor was a very reputable profession, he explains. Today, even high achievers constantly fear that they are insignificant when they compare themselves to success stories promulgated by the print and electronic media, constantly afraid that their rating on a variety of scales may drop. "This creates highly unstable self-esteem and an unstable society," he says.

In his book, Strenger also attacks new pop-spiritualism that promises instant change and instant relief. Instead of solving an existential unease, such resources just create ever growing disappointment. The cheap-fix guru books for instant spirituality that line airport shelves do not provide any long-term solutions, he says.

The cure? Dump the junk and look inside

Strenger counsels that people stop measuring their achievement through cultural fantasies of riches and celebrity, which reflect a media craze for ranking and rating people and cannot lead to fulfillment. The remedy is a process that he calls "active self-acceptance" through a sustained quest for self-knowledge as part of our process of maturation. The fear of insignificance can only be overcome through strong individual and cultural identity over and above measurable achievement.

He believes that people need to invest as much time in developing their worldviews as their careers. "Stable meaning cannot be found in cheap paperbacks. The media are feeding people spiritual junk food. People should invest time and thought to their worldviews and self-understanding in the same way they invest in medical studies and law school," Strenger advises.

A liberal education is a good way to start, but the process must continue through a lifetime. To live a fulfilling life, we need to engage in a life-long process of learning and evolving, he concludes.


Getting Inside the Mind of Islam
12/22/2010

Albert Einstein once said that science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind. Now a Tel Aviv University researcher is one of the first to explore the link between these two realms in the Muslim world.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Hisham Abu-Raiya of Tel Aviv University's Bob Shapell School of Social Work is investigating how various Islamic beliefs and practices impact the psychological well-being of its adherents. Among American Muslims, he's attempting to scientifically quantify how the after-effects of the 9/11 attacks have affected mental well-being and what therapeutic role Islam plays, hoping to identify a clinical path for recovery. It is the first study of its kind and has findings applicable to other religions, the researcher says.

Since 9/11, U.S. Muslims have faced an increasing number of security checks, harassment, and verbal abuse. Via an online questionnaire, Dr. Abu-Raiya surveyed 138 American Muslims, asking how they coped with these new stressors. His findings were reported in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality in October.

The God response

During his post-doctoral studies at New York University, Dr. Abu-Raiya had witnessed firsthand how 9/11 impacted the Muslim community. For this study, he investigated the high volume of negative events experienced by American Muslim participants. The large majority reported experiencing at least one stressful interpersonal event after the 9/11 attacks, including anti-Muslim insults, special security checks in airports, and verbal harassment.

The Muslims who created support groups or became more active at their local mosques, where they found strength in communal support. Theirs were considered positive responses and included a sense that they were experiencing "a test from God." Participants in general reportedly increased religious practices such as prayer, fasting, mosque attendance, and Quran reading following the 9/11 attack. Those who described feeling isolated from others and their community were more likely to report feelings of anger and depression. They were more likely to doubt God or their faith, and to express the possibility that God was punishing them.

A tool to assess Islam

To interpret the questionnaire responses, Dr. Abu-Raiya used a tool he developed during his Ph.D. studies at Ohio's Bowling Green State University, the Psychological Measure of Islamic Religiousness (PMIR) — a scientifically-based, multi-dimensional tool for studying the psychological aspects of Islam. This assessment is similar to, yet different from, measures that quantify faith among other religious groups.

"Religion can offer an immense amount of support to the individual and community," says Dr. Abu-Raiya. "My findings can help clinicians identify the kind of behavior that leads to positive responses — and how to help patients better reach their goal of healing."

Religion can be used explicitly in the clinical setting as an important coping tool for life stressors, he adds, noting that the story of Job from the Quran — the same story that appears in the Old Testament — was particularly useful in guiding one patient through a long-term depression. Because all religions share universal values, Dr. Abu-Raiya's study of Islam on the emotional well-being of patients in a clinical setting can certainly be applied to other religions, including Judaism and Christianity.

He notes that his research can also be used to increase awareness of the profound and traumatic impacts of the 9/11 attacks on Muslims living in the United States.


Fat Sand Rats Are SAD Like Us
11/8/2010

Saying goodbye to summer can be difficult for everybody. In some people the onset of winter triggers Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, a mood disorder in which sufferers experience symptoms of depression. Happily, a special kind of gerbil exhibits remarkably similar reactions to SAD treatments as humans, opening a promising new channel for study and treatment of the common complaint.

With her work on the Israeli desert inhabitant gerbil called the Fat Sand Rat (Psammomys obesus), Prof. Noga Kronfeld-Schor of Tel Aviv University's Department of Zoology and her fellow researcher, Prof. Haim Einat of the University of Minnesota, have found new hope for the study of these and similar disorders. Her results, recently published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, indicate that her new test subjects are more suitable model animal for the study of SAD than the rats and mice used previously.

Until now, Prof. Kronfeld-Schor explains, most research on the mechanisms of affective disorders was carried out on mice and rats. But this has been problematic in applying the research results to humans — mice are nocturnal, while humans are diurnal. Clearly, when we conduct research of disorders like SAD which affect our circadian system, she says, our model animals should be diurnal as well.

Different as night and day

Most laboratory mice don't produce melatonin, a natural hormone produced by humans and other mammals during the night. Moreover, as nocturnal animals, mice and rats become more active at night, when melatonin levels are high, while humans are active during the day, when melatonin levels are now. For most biomedical research, Prof. Kronfeld-Schor explains, mice are excellent model subjects. But for affective disorders, which rely heavily on the human circadian system, she hypothesized that a diurnal mammal would provide a superior animal model.

To test this theory, Prof. Kronfeld-Schor and her fellow researcher put two groups of Fat Sand Rats through several experiments. First, to test the effect of the length of light exposure on the rats' emotional state, one group was exposed to long hours of light similar to that of the summer season, and the other to shorter hours of the winter length daylight. In several tests, the sand rats of the second group behaved in ways similar to depressed humans, exhibiting despair, reduced social interactions and increased anxiety.

Once the researchers established that Fat Sand Rats and humans had a similar reaction to light, the team explored whether common medications or other SAD therapies would be as effective in their rat population. These studies included a variety of medications commonly used to treat the disorder in humans, as well as a program of exposing the depressed sand rats to brighter light for one hour every morning or evening.

More than a placebo

According to Prof. Kronfeld-Schor, the results were surprising. The medications were effective in treating the sand rats' depression, but even more effective was the daily exposure to bright light in the mornings, a common treatment for human SAD. "Humans have been using this treatment for a long time," she explains, "but many of us thought that a large part of its success was based on the placebo effect. For the first time, we've found it to be effective in animals as well, which weakens the possibility of the placebo effect."

The breakthrough, says Prof. Kronfeld-Schor, is the discovery of a superior and viable animal model for studying affective disorders. Though several biological mechanisms for SAD have been proposed, they have not been scientifically proven. A good animal model to study the mechanisms of SAD will advance understanding of the disorder, help screen for effective treatments and allow for the development of new therapies.


Teaching Kids to Work Through Trauma
10/21/2010

A child who grows up in the midst of political conflict, such as war or terrorism, can exhibit severe emotional scars. But certain qualities, which psychologists call "resilience factors," can help overcome this adversity.

Prof. Michelle Slone of Tel Aviv University's Department of Psychology has now developed a program to help children develop these resilience factors and avoid the psychological disabilities that may arise from stress. Her method — and her inspiring results — were recently described in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and International Journal of Behavioral Development.

A lesson plan for resilience

Because children are surprisingly resilient, if given the proper tools, they can move past traumatic experiences more easily than adults.

Prof. Slone studied children who underwent daily rocket attacks from Gaza or other forms of political violence. She compared children who appeared more well-adjusted to those who exhibited more severe psychological trauma, and determined which qualities made the difference. With the results of this research, she developed a series of workshops to enhance those elements that helped children deal with the stress of conflict.

After the workshops, children who attended were better able to stand up in front of their peers and candidly discuss their anxieties about the conflict they experienced, engaging with the group to form strategies for dealing with problems that arose. This exercise dramatically improved their psychological healing process, she says.

A four-fold approach

For her workshops, Prof. Slone identified four of the most important resilience factors: mobilizing appropriate support; attributing meaning to the traumatic experience; developing self-efficacy and problem-solving skills; and improving self-esteem. Next, she developed a school-based intervention program to help students develop and utilize the desired qualities. She and her fellow researchers created a workbook for each factor, she explains, and held training sessions with teachers. Through a four-to-six week workshop process, the children were led through a variety of activities designed to improve each quality.

Analyzing pre- and post-workshop questionnaires, interviews, and evaluations, Prof. Slone and her fellow researchers determined that in addition to developing the individual resilience factor each workshop focused on, the students displayed less anxiety and aggressive behavior, a better sense of well-being and improved social interaction and academic performance.

Teachers as well as students benefited from the workshops, says Prof. Slone. Prior to implementing this program, teachers had no method for talking to their students about the traumatic symptoms they observed. Teachers reported that the workshops enhanced their ability to help their students with difficult issues, and even improved class and school morale.

Helping children around the world

Although the program would need to be modified to account for cultural differences, says Prof. Slone, similar programs can be introduced in schools internationally. She believes that her workshops give teachers the tools they need to communicate with their students about difficult issues, and allow children to better psychologically handle the traumas to which they may have been exposed. This could help children deal with the effects of events such as 9/11 or the London Underground bombings.

The first step, explains Prof. Slone, is to determine what resilience factors benefit the children in a given society or culture. Once these factors are identified, the workshops can be adapted to help foster these particular factors. "This type of secondary intervention has the potential to be effective for a wide variety of trauma exposure," she says. "And it is possible to enhance resilience factors in large populations of children. They're lessons that can last a lifetime."


Obsessing Over Strep Throat in Kids
10/20/2010

A common infection in children, strep throat can lead to problems with a child’s heart, joints or brain if left untreated. And when the brain is involved, motor and mental functioning may be compromised, leading to syndromes such as attention deficit disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

While scientists have speculated on a link between OCD and childhood infections like strep for more than two decades, Prof. Daphna Joel and her team of researchers at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Psychology have now scientifically demonstrated that strep can lead to brain dysfunction and OCD. Dr. Joel says their breakthrough could lead to new drugs for treating OCD, and may in the future prevent the psychiatric disorder altogether.

Conducted by the PhD student Lior Brimberg and in collaboration with Prof. Madelaine W. Cunningham of the University of Oklahoma, the research, recently presented at the 13th Congress of the European Federation of Neurological Societies in Florence, Italy, is expected to be published by the beginning of next year.

How strep attacks the brain

“It’s almost impossible to show how strep can lead to OCD in humans ― almost all of us, even very young children, have been exposed to the bacterium at one time or another,” says Prof. Joel. “But childhood seems to provide a distinct window of opportunity for the disorder to take root through strep infection,” she warns.

Working with the world’s leading specialist in strep-related heart disease,Prof. Cunningham, the researchers developed a new animal model to show how exposure to strep affects the brain and leads to a number of physical and mental ailments.

In her Tel Aviv University laboratory, Prof. Joel and Brimberg created an animal model using rats exposed to  the strep bacteria. Comparing them to a strep-free control group, Prof. Joel measured a distinct difference in behavior in the strep-exposed animals.

First, the strep-exposed rats developed a strep antibody which deposited in their brain, confirming the suspicions of previous researchers. Those exposed also developed balance and coordination difficulties, as well as compulsive behaviors such as increased and repetitive grooming.

More important, they also found that the strep antibody binds itself to dopamine D1 and D2 receptors in the brain. This finding is in harmony with the fact that one of the main drugs for treating Sydenham's Chorea, a motor disorder associated with strep, targets these same dopamine D2 receptors.

“We were able to show that these antibodies are binding to receptors in the brain and changing the way certain neurotransmitters operate, leading to brain dysfunction and motor and behavioral symptoms,” Prof. Joel says.

Prevention before the cure

This breakthrough finding could lead to new modes of diagnosis of the disease and provide a  new platform for drug developers seeking to treat or cure OCD.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, OCD affects up to 2% of all children and adolescents in the U.S. The disorder is characterized by recurrent intense obsessions and/or compulsions that may cause severe discomfort, anxiety and stress, and interfere with day-to-day functioning.

Prof. Joel stresses how important it is for parents who notice signs of strep throat to ensure that their children get treated with the appropriate antibiotics in a timely fashion.

Strep-induced OCD will likely continue to be a major problem in the developing world where strep is not treated adequately, she concludes.


Is Anxiety Contagious?
10/14/2010

Anxiety, or the reaction to a perceived danger, is a response that differs from one animal or human to another — or so scientists thought. Now researchers at Tel Aviv University are challenging what we know about stress, and their study has implications for helping clinicians better treat victims of terrorism or natural disasters.

Prof. David Eilam and his graduate student Rony Izhar of Tel Aviv University's Department of Zoology are spearheading a study designed to investigate the anxieties experienced by an entire social group. Using the natural predator-and-prey relationship between the barn owl and the vole, a small animal in the rodent family, researchers were able to test unified group responses to a common threat.

The results, which have been reported in the journals Behavioural Brain Research and Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, demonstrated that while anxiety levels can differ among individuals in normal circumstances, surprisingly, group members display the same level of anxiety when exposed to a common threat.

Standing together

Prof. Eilam says that this explains human behavior in response to trauma or terror, such as the citizens of New York City in the days after the 9/11 terror attacks, or after natural disasters such as the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. These are times when people stand together and accept a general code of conduct, explains Prof. Eilam.

Prof. Eilam and his fellow researchers measured the anxiety levels of three groups of ten voles each. They placed the voles in a peaceful environment and measured how much time each vole spent out in the open and then in protected areas. The more time a vole spent in protected areas, the higher the anxiety level, though this varied among individual voles.

Then the researchers exposed the voles to a common threat, placing the voles' cage within a barn owl enclosure, and attracted owls to the cages by placing meat on top of the cage. The voles' experience, says Prof. Eilam, was one of being attacked. After a night of exposure to their natural predator, the voles were tested once again for anxiety. Now, researchers found that each vole was equally stressed.

According to Prof. Eilam, this result is surprising compared to the control group, in which each vole went through the stressful night in the owl's enclosure individually. When facing their predators alone, there was no common level among all thirty of the voles when it came to their stress levels. While they showed heightened anxiety, it was directly in relation to their base level anxiety response, as measured before the first experiment.

"It's not a question of being more or less afraid," says Prof. Eilam. "Under threat, members of a social group will adopt a common behavioral code, regardless of their individual tendency towards anxiety."

The hero effect

Another interesting finding, says Prof. Eilam, was the difference in group stress levels among an all-male group, an all-female group, and a mixed-gender group. Typically, such experiments have been done with all-male groups, he explains — females are affected by factors such as menstrual cycles and other gender-specific features can change behavior. But in this case, Prof. Eilam and his fellow researchers wanted to know what would happen if they added female voles to the mix.

Though both female and male voles experienced heightened anxiety when exposed to barn owls in an all-female or all-male group, their response to stress changed in the mixed groups. The female voles in the mixed group exhibited a standard heightened anxiety level, says Prof. Eilam, but the males did not.

Instead, male voles remained relatively "calm," perhaps a result of their protector role within vole populations. "Males are responsible for protecting the nest," he explains. "This is an adaptive behavior that reflects work division within the family."

While the studies focused on rodents, Prof. Eilam says that this research provides a model with which human group behavior can be assessed.


Re-evaluating the Time of Your Life
10/11/2010

In life, we're told, we must take the good with the bad, and how we view these life events determines our well-being and ability to adjust. But according to Prof. Dov Shmotkin of Tel Aviv University's Department of Psychology, you need more than the right attitude to successfully negotiate the vicissitudes of life.

As recently reported in Aging and Mental Health, Prof. Shmotkin's research reveals that people's well-being and their adaptation can be ascertained by their "time trajectory" — their concept of how they have evolved through their remembered past, currently perceived present, and anticipated future. A close study of how patients compartmentalize their life into these periods can help clinical psychologists treat them more effectively, he says.

From trauma to everyday life

Prof. Shmotkin says that the theory emerged from the study of patients who had experienced traumatic events. "We discovered that overcoming trauma was related to how people organized the memory of their trauma on the larger time continuum of their life course," he explains.

In a study of Holocaust survivors, Prof. Shmotkin separated these survivors into those who considered the "Holocaust as past" and those who conceived of the "Holocaust as present." Those in the "Holocaust as past" category were able to draw an effective line between the present day and the past trauma, thus allowing themselves to move forward. Those in the "Holocaust as present" category considered their traumatic experience as still existing, which indicated a difficulty in containing the trauma within a specific time limit.

But Prof. Shmotkin quickly saw that these coping mechanisms were not exclusive to those who had experienced trauma. Instead, he theorized, these mechanisms are a part of the normal aging process. When young, he explains, our wishes for self improvement and growth lie in an anticipated future. But as we get older, our longer perspective can help or hinder in confronting the present challenges of aging.

A time line to improve patient care

Prof. Shmotkin tested his thesis in collaboration with his former PhD students, Drs. Yuval Palgi and Amit Shrira. They studied participants with an average age of 92 who described their personal time trajectories in terms of their satisfaction with the recent past, the present, and near future.

The best-functioning participants were those whose time trajectory appeared stable rather than "descending," as was expected to occur is very old age, or "ascending," as is normal for youth and adults. Participants at this advanced age also revealed higher well-being when they managed to contrast their present with the suffering they endured in miserable periods of their life. Notably, Holocaust survivors were less able to make this break between the present and the trauma of their past.

This information, says Prof. Shmotkin, is crucial for improving therapeutic care, although it is often overlooked by clinical psychologists. "A person's subjective time frame is key to the formulation of that person's life story and well-being," he explains. Prof. Shmotkin urges psychologists to try to better understand their patients' personal time trajectories, using these as a tool to help patients reconcile their traumatic pasts and the present challenges of aging.


Can't Place That Face?
7/28/2010

A specific area in our brains is responsible for processing information about human and animal faces, both how we recognize them and how we interpret facial expressions. Now, Tel Aviv University research is exploring what makes this highly specialized part of the brain unique, a first step to finding practical applications for that information.

In her "Face Lab" at Tel Aviv University, Dr. Galit Yovel of TAU's Department of Psychology is trying to understand the mechanisms at work in the face area of the brain called the "fusiform gyrus" of the brain. She is combining cognitive psychology with techniques like brain imaging and electrophysiology to study how the brain processes information about faces. Her most recent research on the brain's face-processing mechanisms was published in the Journal of Neuroscience and Human Brain Mapping.

The study of face recognition does more than provide an explanation for embarrassing memory lapses. For instance, it may help business executives better match names with faces, and more important can lead to better facial recognition software to identify terrorists or criminals. Similar to faces, bodies are also processed by distinct brain areas. How we perceive faces is not totally intuitive, she says, and therefore raises the question of how this information is combined in our brain to understand how separate face and body areas generate a whole body-image impression.

Identifying "face blindness"

In her research, Dr. Yovel has found that we are better able to recognize faces when we regularly see and interact with them in meaningful settings. It's as though the face-processing sections of the brain — the fusiform face area being the most distinct — recognizes faces holistically. Additions to your face, such as a beard or glasses, are assimilated into or incorporated into the face recognition gestalt of the brain, unlike other elements that are irrelevant to facial recognition, such as the chair you're sitting on. This may be why fashions in hairstyle and eyewear have become so important to personal appearance, she theorizes.

The inability to recognize faces is more common than most people think. Dr. Yovel says that two percent of all people are born with "face blindness," scientifically known as prosopagnosia. She hopes her research will enable these people to train themselves, via software and other methods, to better differentiate one face from another — especially when the face is that of a loved one.

Recognizing the faces you meet

"Faces are important," says Dr. Yovel, who first began to study the neurological basis of face recognition as a post-doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We meet so many people every day, on the street or at work, and should know whether or not each face is important to us. In principle, faces are very similar to one another. That's probably why we've evolved these complex and specialized face areas in the brain — so that we can more accurately discriminate among the countless faces we encounter throughout our lives."

Dr. Yovel hopes her studies will lead to new algorithms that can help computers do a better job of recognizing faces, as well as help people who somehow lack this critical social skill. She is currently collaborating with computer scientists at Tel Aviv University to explore new computational algorithms for facial recognition.


Battlefield Psychologists Investigate Stress in Combat and After
7/19/2010

Psychologists aren't usually called to the battlefield, but the 2008-09 Gaza War gave Tel Aviv University researchers a unique picture of how anxiety manifests during stressful situations.

In a new study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Prof. Yair Bar Haim of TAU's Department of Psychology reports that people confronted with acute stress — daily rocket attacks — tend to dissociate from threats instead of becoming more vigilant. This research overturns accepted convention and may lead to better understanding of the mechanisms underlying acute stress reactions, he says.

Though conducted on the battlefields of the Middle East, Prof. Bar Haim's research has immediate repercussions for U.S. soldiers as well. "The American government is dealing with large numbers of soldiers coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq suffering from PTSD," he says. "Our study is important because it's the first to show the effects of war-related acute stress in real time." It also has significant implications for the understanding of other known PTSD triggers, such as rape or motor vehicle accidents.

A real-time picture of stress

Using fMRI and other imaging techniques, Prof. Bar Haim investigated neural mechanisms related to anxiety disorders and how people respond cognitively to stress. He also studied how people process threats when they are under severe stress. His previous studies, both at Tel Aviv University and through the U.S. National Institutes of Health, looked at neural, genetic and molecular factors related to threat processing in the brain, and these gave Prof. Bar Haim and his team a context to infer what happens in the brain when behavioral data on acute stress situations is collected.

In the most recent study, he looked at Israelis close to the firing zone, near the border with Gaza, where they had been living with the daily stress of rocket threats for eight years. The threat became more severe during the war. While his test subjects completed various computer tasks to test behavior, Dr. Bar Haim monitored processes at the deeper, unseen levels of the brain.

He found that subjects under acute stress developed symptoms of post-trauma and most often manifested a dissociative state rather than one of hypervigilance. Most important for clinical applications, the researchers found that the symptoms produce a measurable effect — a neuromarker — that may be used to predict who are the individuals most at risk for developing chronic PTSD following a traumatic event.

Less vigilant to personal threats

Prof. Bar Haim says this is the first study in the scientific literature to describe real-time effects of war-related stress on its victims. In the previous literature, scientists assumed that people under stress would become more vigilant to threats, rather than disengaging. "This calls for some revision of the foundations of the stress-PTSD model," he says.

Prof. Bar Haim is now conducting a study involving Israeli soldiers that investigates the potential use of computer-based tasks to modify and retrain the attention system of the afflicted patient. Called "Attention Bias Modification Treatment," the approach has been successfully applied in several clinical trials both in the U.S. and in Israel. Soon it will be tested in IDF veterans with PTSD.

Prof. Bar Haim emphasizes that the treatment of anxiety-related disorders is not an easy task. But he hopes that his work in the field, coupled with imaging technologies and computer software, will lead to more effective ways of treating victims of anxiety and PTSD so they can lead normal and healthy lives.


Smoking Mind Over Smoking Matter
7/13/2010

Nicotine patches and gum are common — and often ineffective — ways of fighting cigarette cravings, as most smokers have discovered. Now a new study from Tel Aviv University shows why they're ineffective, and may provide the basis for more successful psychologically-based smoking cessation programs.

In the new study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Dr. Reuven Dar of Tel Aviv University's Department of Psychology found that the intensity of cravings for cigarettes had more to do with the psychosocial element of smoking than with the physiological effects of nicotine as an addictive chemical.

"These findings might not be popular with advocates of the nicotine addiction theory, because they undermine the physiological role of nicotine and emphasize mind over matter when it comes to smoking," Dr. Dar says. He hopes this research will help clinicians and health authorities develop more successful smoking cessation programs than those utilizing expensive nicotine patches or gum.

Up in the air

Dr. Dar and his colleagues' conclusions are based on two landmark studies. In the most recent study, he and his colleagues monitored the smoking behavior and craving levels of in-flight attendants, both women and men, who worked at the Israeli airline El Al. Each participant was monitored during two flights — a long flight of 10 to 13 hours in duration, from Tel Aviv to New York, for example; and a two-hop shorter trip from Israel to Europe and back, each leg lasting three to five hours. Using a questionnaire, he sampled craving levels of the attendants throughout the duration of their flights.

Dr. Dar and his colleagues found that the duration of the flight had no significant impact on craving levels, which were similar for short and long flights. Moreover, craving levels at the end of each short flight were much higher those at the end of the long flight, demonstrating that cravings increased in anticipation of the flight landing, whatever the flight's total duration. He concluded that the craving effect is produced by psychological cues rather than by the physiological effects of nicotine deprivation.

No smoking on the Sabbath

In an earlier 2005 study, Dr. Dar examined smokers who were religious Jews, forbidden by their religion to smoke on the Sabbath. He asked them about their smoking cravings on three separate days: the Sabbath, a regular weekday, and a weekday on which they'd been asked to abstain. Participants were interviewed at the end of each day about their craving levels during that day.

What Dr. Dar found is that cravings were very low on the morning of the Sabbath, when the smoker knew he would not be able to smoke for at least 10 hours. Craving levels gradually increased at the end of the Sabbath, when participants anticipated the first post-Sabbath cigarette. Craving levels on the weekday on which these people smoked as much as they wanted were just as high as on the day they abstained, showing that craving has little to do with nicotine deprivation.

Dr. Dar's studies conclude that nicotine is not addictive as physiological addictions are usually defined. While nicotine does have a physiological role in increasing cognitive abilities such as attention and memory, it's not an addictive substance like heroin, which creates true systemic and biologically-based withdrawal symptoms in the body of the user, he says.

Dr. Dar believes that people who smoke do so for short-term benefits like oral gratification, sensory pleasure and social camaraderie. Once the habit is established, people continue to smoke in response to cues and in situations that become associated with smoking. Dr. Dar believes that understanding smoking as a habit, not an addiction, will facilitate treatment. Smoking cessation techniques should emphasize the psychological and behavioral aspects of the habit and not the biological aspects, he suggests.


A Pacemaker for Your Brain
6/28/2010

By stimulating certain areas of the brain, scientists can alleviate the effects of disorders such as depression or Parkinson's disease. That's the good news. But because controlling that stimulation currently lacks precision, over-stimulation is a serious concern — losing some of its therapeutic benefits for the patient over time.

Now a Tel Aviv University team, part of a European consortium, is delving deep into human behavior, neurophysiology and engineering to create a chip that can help doctors wire computer applications and sensors to the brain. The chip will provide deep brain stimulation precisely where and when it's needed.

Prof. Matti Mintz of Tel Aviv University's Psychobiology Research Unit in its Department of Psychology is focusing on the behavioral-physiological aspects of the research. He and the rest of the international research team are working toward a chip that could help treat some diseases of the mind in just a few years. The platform, says Prof. Mintz, is flexible enough to provide a basis for a variety of clinical experiments, and tools which can be programmed for specific disorders. For example, the chip could restore lost functions of the brain after a traumatic brain injury from a car accident or stroke.

Reversing strokes, depression and aging

The team's methodology is straightforward — they record activity using electrodes implanted in diseased areas of the brain. Based on an analysis of this activity, they develop algorithms to simulate healthy neuronal activity which are programmed into a microchip and fed back into the brain.

For now, the chip, called the Rehabilitation Nano Chip (or ReNaChip), is hooked up to tiny electrodes which are implanted in the brain. But as chips become smaller, the ReNaChip could be made small enough to be "etched" right onto the electrodes themselves.

For therapeutic purposes, though, only the electrodes will be inserted into the brain. "The chip itself can be implanted just under the skin, like pacemakers for the heart," says Prof. Mintz, who is currently conducting experiments on animal models, "ensuring that the brain is stimulated only when it needs to be."

One of the challenges of the proposed technology is the size of the electrodes. The researchers hope to further miniaturize deep brain electrodes while adding more sensors at the same time says Prof. Mintz. His Tel Aviv University colleague and partner Prof. Yossi Shaham-Diamond is working on this problem.

The international multidisciplinary team, includes other researchers from TAU — Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron and Dr. Mira Kalish — and partners from Austria, England and Spain, regularly converge on the TAU campus to update and integrate new components of the set-up and monitor the progress of the chip in live animals in Prof. Mintz's lab.

A two-way conversation

The idea that a chip can interface between inputs and outputs of certain brain area is a very new concept in scientific circles, Prof. Mintz notes, although movies and TV shows about bionic humans have been part of the popular culture for decades. The researchers say that their ReNaChip could help people whose brains have deteriorated with age or been damaged by injury and disease. The chip will not only provide a bionic replacement for lost neuronal function in the brain, under ideal conditions, it could significantly rehabilitate the brain.

Currently, the researchers are attempting to rehabilitate motor-learning functions lost due to brain damage. "We are attaching the chip to the brain to stimulate relatively simple brain behaviors," says Prof. Mintz. A controlled treatment for drug resistant epilepsy, based on the team's technology, could be only a few years away, he says.


Proof: Smoking Is Dumb
4/1/2010

"Only dopes use dope," goes the memorable warning about drugs. Now a Tel Aviv University researcher cautions that the same goes for cigarettes.

A study led by Prof. Mark Weiser of Tel Aviv University's Department of Psychiatry and the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer Hospital has determined that young men who smoke are likely to have lower IQs than their non-smoking peers. Tracking 18- to 21-year-old men enlisted in the Israeli army in the largest ever study of its kind, he has been able to demonstrate an important connection between the number of cigarettes young males smoke and their IQ.

The average IQ for a non-smoker was about 101, while the smokers' average was more than seven IQ points lower at about 94, the study determined. The IQs of young men who smoked more than a pack a day were lower still, at about 90. An IQ score in a healthy population of such young men, with no mental disorders, falls within the range of 84 to 116.

An addiction that doesn't discriminate

"In the health profession, we've generally thought that smokers are most likely the kind of people to have grown up in difficult neighborhoods, or who've been given less education at good schools," says Prof. Weiser, whose study was reported in a recent version of the journal Addiction. "But because our study included subjects with diverse socio-economic backgrounds, we've been able to rule out socio-economics as a major factor. The government might want to rethink how it allocates its educational resources on smoking."

Making the results more significant, the study also measured effects in siblings. In the case where one brother smoked, the non-smoking brother registered a higher IQ on average.

Although a lower IQ may suggest a greater risk for smoking addiction, the cross-sectional data on IQ and smoking found that most of the smokers investigated in the study had IQs within the average range nevertheless.

Obesity, drug addiction also at issue

In the study, the researchers took data from more than 20,000 men before, during and after their time in the military. All men in the study were considered in good health, since pre-screening measures for suitability in the army had already been taken. The researchers found that around 28 percent of their sample smoked one or more cigarettes a day, 3 percent considered themselves ex-smokers, and 68% said they never smoked.

Prof. Weiser says that the study illuminates a general trend in epidemiological studies. "People on the lower end of the average IQ tend to display poorer overall decision-making skills when it comes to their health," says Prof. Weiser. He adds that his finding can help address a serious concern among health counsellors at grade and high schools. Schoolchildren who have been found to have a lower IQ can be considered at risk to begin the habit, and can be targeted with special education and therapy to prevent them from starting or to break the habit after it sets in.

"People with lower IQs are not only prone to addictions such as smoking," Prof. Weiser adds. "These same people are more likely to have obesity, nutrition and narcotics issues. Our study adds to the evidence of this growing body of research, and it may help parents and health professionals help at-risk young people make better choices."


"Subjective Time" Can Improve Your Bottom Line
2/4/2010

Time flies when you’re having fun, but minutes can feel like hours in a dentist’s waiting room. Our ideas of “time” are highly subjective and can depend on a stimulus — or the lack of one — in our environment.

Now Prof. Dan Zakay of the Department of Psychology at Tel Aviv University has empirical evidence to show businesses how to use waiting time to their best advantage. “Billions of dollars are at stake when customers are waiting, be it on the phone, at an Internet e-commerce site, or in a department store,” he says. “If people feel they’re waiting too long, they’ll hang up or walk away and spend their money elsewhere.”

His recent research, published in the journal NeuroQuantology, suggests that businesses can often keep those customers from leaving with a few simple strategies.

Manipulating the hands of time

For his study, Prof. Zakay asked his subjects to estimate and subjectively describe intervals of time. In the first group, 50 participants were placed in a waiting room with nothing to do, while in another participants were allowed to watch cartoons and TV as they waited the same amount of time. Those in the second group reported they had a much shorter wait ― at least 50% less ― than those who had nothing to do.

Over the years, Prof. Zakay has been measuring the difference between objective and subjective time through a battery of various cognitive experiments. There is a consistent difference in how we “feel” time, he says, and some of this basic understanding of the cognitive processes that measure time may prove to be a boon to business sales.

Time really is money

“When people are waiting in line, they have already committed to buying something, but because they don’t like to wait, that commitment can change,” Prof. Zakay explains. “The value of waiting, so to speak, is worth billions of dollars. Clients are easy to lose and hard to keep, especially when customers call in to buy something.”

The question of how consumers “feel” time is very important to making the initial sale and turning them into repeat customers, says Prof. Zakay. His models can be used to manipulate people’s  perceptions so they feel they’re waiting a shorter period of time.

Some methods seem obvious. At amusement parks, lines for rides and activities should never be straight; they should always be fragmented into different segments. The idea is to divide the line so that no one can see the whole length of the line, since seeing a long waiting queue is frustrating compared to seeing a short waiting segment. Of course in each segment other methods for distracting attention from time should be used, says Prof. Zakay: characters like Mickey Mouse are important for distracting children with a low threshold for boredom.

The same techniques can be leveraged for more traditional businesses. “There are very simple practices that can measurably boost sales,” says Prof. Zakay. “For example, telling customers how long they can expect to wait always helps to reduce the feeling of wait time. Giving them coffee or interesting things to do can retain their loyalty as well.”

“Essentially people want to feel that their time is valuable and that they’re not wasting it in line,” Prof. Zakay concludes. “When lines are designed well and waiting procedures are more enjoyable, the subjective waiting duration is decreased significantly,” turning a long wait into a short one in the eyes of the customer.

Several new chapters written by Prof. Zakay on the concept of time are available in the latest edition of The Encyclopaedia of Time, published by Sage in 2009.

Stopping Schizophrenia Before It Starts?
1/28/2010

The onset of schizophrenia is not easy to predict. Although it is associated with as many as 14 genes in the human genome, the prior presence of schizophrenia in the family is not enough to determine whether one will succumb to the mind-altering condition. The disease also has a significant environmental link.

According to Prof. Ina Weiner of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Psychology, the developmental disorder, which usually manifests in early adulthood, can be triggered in the womb by an infection. But unlike developmental disorders such as autism, it takes many years for the symptoms of schizophrenia to develop.

"Pharmacological treatments for schizophrenia remain unsatisfactory, so clinicians and researchers like myself have started to dig in another direction," says Prof. Weiner. "The big question asked in recent years is if schizophrenia can be prevented."

Revolutionizing the treatment

In their study, recently reported in Biological Psychiatry, Prof. Weiner and her Ph.D. student Dr. Yael Piontkewiz and Dr. Yaniv Assaf of TAU's Neurobiology Department sought to discover biological cues that would help trace the progression of the disease before symptoms manifested. "If progressive brain changes occur as schizophrenia is emerging, it is possible that these changes could be prevented by early intervention," she says. "That would revolutionize the treatment of the disorder.

"We wondered if we could use neuro-imaging to track any early-onset changes in the brains of laboratory animals," Prof. Weiner says. "If so, could these changes and their accompanying schizophrenia-like symptoms be prevented if caught early enough?"

Beyond a doubt

Prof. Weiner and her team gave pregnant rats a viral mimic known to induce a schizophrenia-like behavioral disorder in the offspring. This method simulates maternal infection in pregnancy, a well known risk factor for schizophrenia. Prof. Weiner demonstrated that the rat offspring were normal at birth and during adolescence. But in early adulthood, the animals, like their human counterparts, began to show schizophrenia-like symptoms.

Looking at brain scans and behavior, Prof. Weiner found abnormally developing lateral ventricles and the hippocampus in those rats with "schizophrenia." Those that were at high risk for the condition could be given drugs to treat their brains, she determined. Following treatment with risperidone and clozapine, two commonly used drugs to treat schizophrenia, brain scans showed that the lateral ventricles and the hippocampus retained a healthy size.

"Clinicians have suspected that these drugs can be used to prevent the onset of schizophrenia, but this is the first demonstration that such a treatment can arrest the development of brain deterioration," says Prof. Weiner. She says that the drugs work best when delivered during the rats' "adolescent" period, several months before they reached full maturity.

Now, anti-psychotics are prescribed only when symptoms are present. Prof. Weiner believes that an effective non-invasive prediction method (looking at the developmental trajectory of specific changes in the brain), coupled with a low dose drug taken during adolescence, could stave off schizophrenia in those most at risk.

More research is needed to see at what point changes in the brain can be detected, work that Prof. Weiner has already begun. She adds that the neuroimaging was performed in the Alfredo Federico Strauss Center for Computational Neuro-Imaging, Raymond and Beverly Sackler Center for Biophysics, Tel Aviv University.


How to Live Your Life Twice
1/21/2010

Elliot Jacques coined the term "mid-life crisis" 40 years ago, when the average lifespan was 70 and "mid-life" came at age 35. Individuals could expect their quality of life to decline from that point forward, Jacques argued, so some extreme reactions to encroaching mortality were to be expected, such as having extra-marital affairs and buying a Corvette.

Not any more, says Prof. Carlo Strenger of Tel Aviv University's Department of Psychology. In an article co-authored with the Israeli researcher Arie Ruttenberg for the Harvard Business Review last year, and another in the journal Psychoanalytic Psychology, Prof. Strenger posits that the mid-life years are the best time of life to flourish and grow.

Citing research based on empirical evidence and studies from the field, Prof. Strenger says that adult lives really do have second acts.

"Somehow this line has been drawn around the mid and late 40s as the time for a mid-life crisis in our society," says Prof. Strenger. "But as people live longer and fuller lives, we have to cast aside that stereotype and start thinking in terms of 'mid-life transition' rather than 'mid-life crisis.'" He dismisses the prevailing myth that reaching the years between the 40s and the early 60s means adapting to diminished expectations, both internally and from society.

Thirty-five years of learning

"If you make fruitful use of what you've discovered about yourself in the first half of your life," Dr. Strenger argues, "the second half can be the most fulfilling."

 

Most people make many of their most important life decisions before they really know who they are, he says. By age 30, most Americans have already married, decided where to live, bought their first home, and chosen their career. "But at 30, people still have the better part of their adult years ahead of them," Prof. Strenger says.

The good news is that extended life expectancy, better health practices, education, and a greater emphasis on emotional self-awareness and personal fulfilment have reversed the chances that one will have a mid-life crisis. Neurological research has also disproved the notion that the brain deteriorates after 40. "A rich and fruitful life after 50 is a much more realistic possibility," he says.

Four tips to avoid a mid-life crisis

How can you transition smoothly through the best years of your life?

"First, and most important," Prof. Strenger suggests, "invest some sincere thought in the fact that you have more high-quality adult years ahead of you than behind you. Realize what that means in planning for the future."

Second, he says, think about what you've learned about yourself so far. Consider what you've found to be your strongest abilities and about the things that most please you, not what your parents or society expected of you when you were young.

Third, don't be afraid of daunting obstacles in making new changes. "Once you realize how much time you have left in this world, you will find it is profoundly worth it to invest energy in changing in major ways. A new career choice is not an unreasonable move, for example," Dr. Strenger advises. And you may now have a better chance of succeeding, because your choices will be based on knowledge and experience, rather than youthful blind ambition.

Finally, Prof. Strenger says it is absolutely necessary to make use of a support network. Individuals should discuss major life changes with their colleagues, friends and families. The people who know you best will best be able to support you in the new directions you want to take, he advises, and a professional therapist or counsellor can also be helpful.

Prof. Stenger's 2004 book on the subject is The Designed Self, published by The Analytic Press. His latest book, Critique of Global Unreason: Individuality and Meaning in the Global Age, will be published by Palgrave this year.

Estrogen in the Fight Against Schizophrenia
1/19/2010

Many American women are prescribed estrogen to combat the negative effects of menopause, such as bone loss and mood swings. Now, new evidence from a Tel Aviv University study suggests that hormone replacement therapy might also protect them — and younger women — from schizophrenia as well.

Prof. Ina Weiner of Tel Aviv University's Department of Psychology and her doctoral student Michal Arad have reported findings suggesting that restoring normal levels of estrogen may work as a protective agent in menopausal women vulnerable to schizophrenia. Their work, based on an animal model of menopausal psychosis, was recently reported in the journal Psychopharmacology.

"We've known for some time that when the level of estrogen is low, vulnerability to psychotic symptoms increases and anti-psychotic drugs are less likely to work. Now, our pre-clinical findings show why this might be happening," says Prof. Weiner.

A hormonal treatment to address a behavioral condition

In their study, Weiner and Arad removed the ovaries of female rats to induce menopause-like low levels of estrogen and showed that this led to schizophrenia-like behavior. The researchers then tried to eliminate this abnormal behavior with an estrogen replacement treatment or with the antipsychotic drug haloperidol. Estrogen replacement therapy effectively alleviated schizophrenia-like behavior but haloperidol had no effect on its own. Haloperidol regained its effect in these rats when supplemented by estrogen.

"When the level of estrogen was low, we could see psychotic-like behavior in the animals. Moreover, the sensitivity to psychosis-inducing drugs went up, while the sensitivity to anti-psychotic drugs went down," Prof. Weiner says. This is exactly what we observe in women with low estrogen levels," she says. "But we also found that estrogen, all by itself, combats psychosis in both male and female rats." Furthermore, in low amounts estrogen increases the effectiveness of anti-psychotic drugs.

Prof. Weiner points out that the medical community is hotly debating the pros and cons of estrogen replacement as an add-on to conventional treatment in schizophrenia. Detractors point to higher chances of cervical cancer and heart attacks in those who receive estrogen supplements. But according to her study, which looked at very specific factors possibly related to schizophrenia, estrogen replacement therapy could have positive behavioral effects, she concludes.

Assessing the possibility for prevention

During the course of a woman’s lifetime, estrogen levels do not remain constant. During her reproductive years, these levels are affected by the menstrual cycle. There are also dramatic changes in the levels of estrogen just after a woman gives birth — a change, which can trigger "post-partum blues," and in extreme cases lead to clinical depression and psychosis.

As a preventative therapy, estrogen could be given to women at certain points in time when they are most at risk for schizophrenia, Prof. Weiner suggests: in their mid-twenties and later during the menopausal years.

"Antipsychotic drugs are less effective during low periods of estrogen in the body, after birth and in menopause," says Prof. Weiner. "Our research links schizophrenia and its treatment to estrogen levels. Men seem less likely to begin schizophrenia after their 40s, which also suggests that estrogen is the culprit."

Prof. Weiner is continuing her research.


Hunting for the Prozac Gene
10/27/2009

Prozac works wonders for some depressed people, but not for others. In some cases, patients derive little benefit and at worst, it can lead to bizarre hallucinations and fits of rage. Researchers and doctors remain puzzled as to what causes the wide range of reaction to Prozac and similar antidepressants.

The answer, Tel Aviv University researchers believe, can be found in a patient's genes. And if their research is successful, these scientists may be able to provide psychiatrists with a simple genetic test to revolutionize the treatment of depression.

Hunting for "the Prozac gene" — its response biomarker, in science-speak — is the foundation of a new Tel Aviv University project established by a unique biobank in TAU's Sackler School of Medicine. Initiated by the biobank's director Dr. David Gurwitz, and his student Ayelet Morag, the researchers are attempting to discover reliable pharmacogenic markers for antidepressants such as Prozac.

"Many drugs for treating depression are on the market," says Dr. Gurwitz. "The most popular ones — including Prozac — are the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). But they only work for about 60% of people with depression. A drug from other families of antidepressants could be effective for the other 40%," he says. "We are working to move the treatment of depression from a trial-and-error approach to a best-fit, personalized regimen."

A genetic basis for psychiatric treatment

Dr. Gurwitz says the key is in our genes, and the first step to unlocking the puzzle lies in discovering relevant biomarkers, the biological elements in blood or DNA that provide clues for disease or conditions such as blood glucose in diabetes, blood pressure in heart disease, and hormones released in pregnancy. Clinicians already base treatments for cancer patients on genetic tests. This has proven especially useful for breast-cancer, where drugs such as Tamoxifen or Herceptin are prescribed only after genetic tests show that they would benefit the patient.

"Why not embrace the same approach for treating depression?" he asks. "We've designed an experiment to search for elements that can determine who will — and who won't — benefit from drugs such as Prozac," says Dr. Gurwitz.

An effective response to "extreme responders"

The researchers will explore "whole-genome gene expression profiles" in cell lines from healthy people. Since Prozac and similar antidepressants are known to inhibit the growth of blood cells, they are now screening a large collection of cell lines to determine which have the strongest and weakest growth-inhibition responses to SSRIs like Prozac. Those cells that exhibit extreme responses will then be screened across the entire human genome, to find out which genetic make-up works best with SSRIs.

Dr. Gurwitz believes that among our 25,000 human genes, only a few hundred will show a difference between the two types of "extreme responder" cells. In the next phase of their study, they will explore which of those "hits" can be valuable clinical biomarkers for the response to Prozac, a study that can subsequently be done by psychiatrists.

"Ours is a unique model because it does not make presumptions," says Dr. Gurwitz. "Research on Prozac response biomarkers over the past 20 years has focused on genes related to the brain metabolism of serotonin, long suspected as the cause of depression," he adds. "However, after many years of research with this focus, it is now obvious that the approach has failed. We realize that we must look at the entire repertoire of human genes."

"Psychiatric pharmacology remains a black box," says Dr. Gurwitz. "Nobody knows why some people respond to Prozac-type SSRI anti-depressants, while others are helped by other kinds of antidepressants. The World Health Organization predicts by the year 2020, costs and lost productivity from depression will exceed those of cardiovascular disease as the leading cause of health expenditure in developed countries. We hope to produce a clear test for antidepressant drug responses to improve the odds for successful treatment."


Keeping the Suicidal Soldier Alive
9/2/2009

According to a recent Washington Post study, approximately 20% of U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are psychologically damaged. Among them are a substantial number with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the high rate of suicide among PTSD sufferers has become unacceptable to Army commanders and the soldiers' families.

Thanks to new research from Tel Aviv University, however, doctors will now be able to forecast a soldier's chances of falling prey to PTSD, with the chance of intervening to prevent military-related suicides.

Prof. Talma Hendler of TAU's Department of Psychology and Psychiatry and the founding director of the Tel Aviv Functional Brain Center has developed a new predictive tool for detecting at-risk soldiers. The tool will permit clinicians to diagnose and treat these soldiers immediately before the stressors of combat lead to chronic psychological problems. Studying a group of 50 Israeli soldiers — trained medics who experienced extreme stress in live combat zones — Prof. Hendler and her graduate student Roee Admon in collaboration with Col. Dr. Gad Lubin from the Israel Defense Forces were able to predict which soldiers would develop significant increases in stress symptoms such as mood decline, intrusive thoughts, and sleep disturbance.

This May, Prof. Hendler was given a special award from the U.S. Army Commanding General of Medical Research for her advances. The research was published in the August issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Metering and monitoring stress with an fMRI

Prof. Hendler's research shows functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can be used to forecast which soldiers might be vulnerable to stress psychopathology in the future. The non-invasive imaging method records the brain activity of military personnel before they enter active duty. Using this baseline as a reference, the researchers can predict which soldier is more prone to exhibit after exposure combat-related stress symptoms — symptoms that can trigger PTSD or major depression.

The TAU researchers measured the levels of "stress symptoms" twice: first when the soldiers were drafted, then again a year-and-a-half later, during their active duty in combat units. The soldiers were also asked a series of questions evaluating their experience in the army. With this data, researchers developed predictive brain measurements for whether or not a soldier would develop stress.

Having such an early biological marker, says Prof. Hendler, means that diagnosis and treatment can begin immediately following exposure to situational trauma. It is the first fMRI-based study in the world to measure brain activation under stress over a long period of time with respect to prior to stress.

Catching a soldier before he falls

"Looking at the part of the brain called the amygdala, we were able to predict how many stress symptoms of PTSD an individual soldier would develop," says Prof. Hendler. She notes that other brain activity was modified by the stress giving indications of the appropriate intensity and approach of treatment after the stress and trauma set in. Prof. Hendler is currently planning a larger study in this direction.

While Prof. Hendler doesn't believe that the fMRI should be used prejudicially to weed soldiers from certain units, she says that it does give specialists a new set of clues as to how to treat soldiers early and effectively, decreasing the rates of military suicide. This field of science is applied in a growing specialty known as "personalized medicine."

"This tool can help provide tailored therapy to the afflicted and at a very early stage could identify the extreme cases that might otherwise go unnoticed, says Prof. Hendler.


Trust in a Teardrop
8/24/2009

Medically, crying is known to be a symptom of physical pain or stress. But now a Tel Aviv University evolutionary biologist looks to empirical evidence showing that tears have emotional benefits and can make interpersonal relationships stronger.

New analysis by Dr. Oren Hasson of TAU's Department of Zoology shows that tears still signal physiological distress, but they also function as an evolution-based mechanism to bring people closer together.

"Crying is a highly evolved behavior," explains Dr. Hasson. "Tears give clues and reliable information about submission, needs and social attachments between one another. My research is trying to answer what the evolutionary reasons are for having emotional tears.

"My analysis suggests that by blurring vision, tears lower defences and reliably function as signals of submission, a cry for help, and even in a mutual display of attachment and as a group display of cohesion," he reports.

His research, published recently in Evolutionary Psychology, investigates the different kinds of tears we shed — tears of joy, sadness and grief — as well as the authenticity or sincerity of the tears. Crying, Dr. Hasson says, has unique benefits among friends and others in our various communities.

For crying out loud (and behind closed doors)

Approaching the topic with the deductive tools of an evolutionary biologist, Dr. Hasson investigated the use of tears in various emotional and social circumstances. Tears are used to elicit mercy from an antagonistic enemy, he claims. They are also useful in eliciting the sympathy — and perhaps more importantly the strategic assistance — of people who were not part of the enemy group.

"This is strictly human," reasons Dr. Hasson. "Emotional tears also signal appeasement, a need for attachment in times of grief, and a validation of emotions among family, friends and members of a group."

Crying enhances attachments and friendships, says Dr. Hasson, but taboos are still there in certain cases. In some cultures, societies or circumstances, the expression of emotions is received as a weakness and the production of tears is suppressed. For example, it is rarely acceptable to cry in front of your boss at work — especially if you are a man, he says.

Streets awash with tears?

Multiple studies across cultures show that crying helps us bond with our families, loved ones and allies, Dr. Hasson says. By blurring vision, tears reliably signal your vulnerability and that you love someone, a good evolutionary strategy to emotionally bind people closer to you.

"Of course," Dr. Hasson adds, "the efficacy of this evolutionary behavior always depends on who you're with when you cry those buckets of tears, and it probably won't be effective in places, like at work, when emotions should be hidden."

Dr. Hasson, a marriage therapist, uses his conclusions in his clinic. "It is important to legitimize emotional tears in relationships," he says. "Too often, women who cry feel ashamed, silly or weak, when in reality they are simply connected with their feelings, and want sympathy and hugs from their partners."


In Pursuit of a Happiness Gene
6/23/2009

The pursuit of happiness characterizes the human condition. But for those suffering from stress, money trouble or chronic illness, a positive outlook on life can be difficult to find. Now, a Tel Aviv University researcher says we should look to our genes.

Prof. Yoram Barak of Tel Aviv University's Sackler School of Medicine is engaged in the "attempt to find the happiness gene, the genetic component of happiness," which may be 50% responsible for an optimistic outlook. The research is a collaboration between Tel Aviv University and its affiliated research hospital, the Chaim Sheba Medical Centre at Tel Hashomer, which is the largest hospital in Israel.

Initial research findings have made Prof. Barak optimistic about their ability to succeed. "If something is genetic, it should have a large concordance among twins," he says. "And the twin studies we are looking at show that 50% of happiness is genetically determined." Prof. Barak is now working with Prof. Anat Achiron of the Sheba Medical Center to identify the specific genes that are associated with happiness.

Dr. Barak's current findings in the hunt for the happiness gene were presented at The World Congress on Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis in Montreal, Canada in 2008, and most recently detailed in the journal Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics, April 2009.

Positive psychology

We may be a long way off from being able to genetically engineer happiness, Prof. Barak says, but we can start by thinking positively. Much of his work is based on positive psychology, which is the "fastest and largest growing area of psychology in the United States — and in the world," he says.

For the 50% of happiness that is not genetic, Prof. Barak is working on a program of positive psychology workshops, with exercises he recently tested in a one-day workshop for 120 participants at the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Israel. Early results indicate that the workshops improved the happiness level of participants by as much as 30%.

This work is dedicated to finding "practical and intervention oriented research and the application of psychology into medicine," says Prof. Barak. His research into the physical affects of mental state on patients with neurological diseases is an attempt to bridge the gap between psychology and clinical medicine.

Feeling good in mind and body

Prof. Barak says that the psychological benefits of the program were accompanied by physical benefits as well. "We were able to raise levels of happiness in these patients so they were just about equal to those of healthy subjects," he says. "If we can apply positive psychology, we can better their adherence to their treatment regime. And we have been able to show that there is a stabilization of the neurological disability as well."

For healthy individuals, Prof. Barak says that his happiness exercises can enrich their lives, too. Meanwhile, his search for the happiness gene goes on.


Depression Does "Make Your Brown Eyes Blue"
5/5/2009

It's more than just feeling bad. Clinical depression affects the way we process information in the brain, negatively affecting memory, attention span, and the brain's ability to learn new things.

Now Tel Aviv University research has provided scientific proof that depression changes our visual perception as well.

A research team headed by Dr. Uri Polat of the Goldschleger Eye Institute at Tel Aviv University compared the visual perception of healthy people to those hospitalized for depression. The clinically depressed, they assessed, lacked the ability to fill in parts of a picture when those parts were missing or faint.

"Vision is processed in the brain, and we already know that depression affects cognitive functioning," says Dr. Polat, whose team pioneered a study on visual perception in people with depression. The new results linking depression to eyesight could result in a breakthrough tool to accurately diagnose depression.

Not seeing the whole picture

To investigate the effects of depression on visual perception, Dr. Polat developed a computerized test that let him assess "the filling-in process" that a healthy mind undertakes when looking at objects. The researchers asked 27 control subjects and 32 patients hospitalized for major depression to look at identical images and report what they saw. The control subjects were able to successfully fill in and "see" missing parts, while the depressive ones were not.

"We see with our brain, not with our eyes. The eye is only the tool," says Dr. Polat, who is studying the brainwave activity of patients during the experiment. He found very unusual patterns emerging: the brain activity of depressed people looked different from that of the control group.

New diagnosis and treatment options

"We are now taking our results and looking at ways we can take the signals in the brain and turn them into an objective tool, both in diagnostics and for monitoring the course of treatment," says Dr. Polat.

With such a tool, visual perception tests might give psychiatrists a better way to diagnose depression. Currently there is no non-biased test to assess whether someone is clinically depressed. Because of the biases inherent in self-administered tests, diagnostic questionnaires can produce inaccurate results, denying patients medication or hospitalization.

Dr. Polat's work might also assist physicians in monitoring the effects of anti-depressants such as Prozac within days. Currently, it can take up to six weeks after the start of treatment to know if the prescription is right for the patient.

Seeing a fuller picture of depression

Dr. Polat and his Tel Aviv University team are now taking the next step and developing an EEG test that could be administered in any clinic or hospital in America to scan brain activity for the signature signs that depression creates.

"A standardized tool for depression could save the healthcare system millions of dollars in costs resulting from misdiagnosis, and would give depressed people peace of mind," says Dr. Polat. "Knowing the severity of one's condition could help a depressed patient decide when to medicate, and then to know whether or not the medication is working. It could also help psychiatrists better understand depression in children, and in people who have multiple dysfunctions that prevent them from communicating their feelings to a psychiatrist."

Decoding Funny Faces to Detect Disease
2/4/2009

Like Russell Crowe’s character in A Beautiful Mind, life is often difficult for the 2.4 million Americans with schizophrenia.  A late or incorrect diagnosis and the lack of effective treatment options can destroy a sufferer's quality of life.

Schizophrenia usually emerges between the ages of 18 and 30, but diagnosis before the disease manifests could be the key to developing more successful treatments, says Prof. Talma Hendler of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Psychology.

Until now, detecting mental illness before symptoms appear has been nearly impossible.  Building on her groundbreaking work on facial recognition and brain imaging, Prof. Hendler is hoping to make early diagnosis a reality by identifying the physical markers of mental illness — particularly schizophrenia — inside the brain.

“With better diagnosis, plus earlier and more disease-specific treatment, we can make a real difference in the lives of these patients,” Prof. Hendler says.

Mapping the brain

For years, the mechanism behind the abnormal social behavior that characterizes many schizophrenic patients has been a mystery.  To study the physical manifestation of schizophrenia, Prof. Hendler used brain imaging to illustrate differences between the brain activity of schizophrenic patients and healthy adults.  Her work is part of the Functional Human Brain Mapping project at Tel Aviv University.

Prof. Hendler's findings, published recently in the journal Human Brain Mapping, showed that when presented with photographs of emotional faces with “bizarre” characteristics, the brains of schizophrenic patients were much less reactive than established norms.

In her previous research published in the journal Neuron, when shown a bizarre "funny face", healthy minds respond with selective activity within the brain, sounding the alarm that there is something disturbing about the image.  Prof Hendler then posited that although this selective response is found in visual areas, it has distributed effects in the brain; “The visual areas of the brain are highly connected to other areas, including the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, but in schizophrenic patients, there is a diminished connection between the various parts, leading to disturbed integration of information — and thus to distorted experiences," she says.

Developing early screening processes and better treatments

“Recognizing facial emotions is a very early process, so young children could be screened for a predisposition to mental disease by measuring their brain connectivity while detecting emotional cues,” Prof. Hendler explains.  An objective early marker of the disease would be especially useful for those already considered high risk, such as children with an immediate family member with the disease.  With early diagnosis to guide individually tailored treatment, it may be possible to reduce the effect of the disease and, in some cases, even prevent its outbreak.

By identifying the physical characteristics of a mental disorder, Prof. Hendler is also paving the way for new types of treatment.  “Current drugs treat the abnormal behavior, not the brain disorder that is causing the behavior,” she says, “We want to be able to develop more specific treatments based on objective brain markers, which are the actual characteristics of the disease.”

Prof. Hendler’s work has been published in leading journals in the field of cognitive neuroscience such as the Journal of Neuroscience and the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Neuroimage and Neuron.  She is currently also working on using brain imaging to characterize and identify predispositions for post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers.

Future work with “funny faces” will also look at basic human emotions such as shame, envy and guilt.  Having a neural marker for these emotions might give clinicians an early-detection tool to spot abnormalities in social interactions.  Problems in socializing are a hallmark of schizophrenia.


Biofeedback from the Zoo
1/27/2009

Almost three percent of all Americans suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). But when do you cross the line between a neurotic compulsion to check your email every five minutes and mental illness?

According to new Tel Aviv University research, the best way to understand and effectively treat OCD is to look at ourselves as though we're animals in a zoo. "We've developed a program that allows us to videotape people that suffer from overt compulsions and compare their behavior to classic displays of neurotic or healthy behavior from the animal kingdom, observed in the wild or in captivity," says Prof. David Eilam from the Department of Zoology at Tel Aviv University.

Studying bears, gazelles, and rats, among other animals, the Tel Aviv University scientists have developed a model to identify and understand abnormal behavior. The model is, in effect, a reference database that gives mental health practitioners a way to classify different behaviors when they observe a patient at the clinic or on video.

A descriptive tool becomes a treatment tool

Watching animals in the wild, and then in captivity at Tel Aviv University's Research Zoo, Prof. Eilam noticed that a uniform repetition of motor patterns occurs in wild animals in captivity. He then understood that the rituals performed by animals in captivity could give clues about OCD and unnecessary actions, such as excessive hand washing, performed by humans. "In the wild, animals perform automated routines, not rituals," says Prof. Eilam. "But in captivity, the animals' attention focus is on perseverating rituals, with an explicit emphasis on performance ― just like they had OCD."

His research, done in collaboration with Prof. Haggai Hermesh, a psychiatrist from the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University and Rama Zor, a Ph.D. student, is now being used as a type of behavioral therapy and as a tool for assessing the efficacy of anti-compulsive treatments. It's the first to connect animal behavior to human OCD, and was recently presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, one of the most important meetings of neuroscientists and psychiatrists in the world.

Seeing is believing

"Patients who previously described their rituals down to the very smallest details can break down crying when they watch their own behavior on video, "he says. "It's striking to see: They can't believe how sick they really are, once they notice the large gap between what they've described to us and what they're observing on the screen."

Using video to provide a form of biofeedback, Prof. Eilam's new therapy may motivate patients to correct their compulsive actions. Given the availability and affordability of video cameras, or web cams, Prof. Eilam expects this mode of behavioral therapy to attract interest in the U.S. "OCD is a very severe mental disorder, but most often in America it is still being assessed by way of a simple questionnaire. Instead, we've been looking at people the same way we look at animals. Animals can't speak or complete a questionnaire, so to study their behavior, we videotape them and then analyse their movements."


Mind Out of Balance, Body Out of Balance
1/22/2009

Many of the 40 million American adults who suffer from anxiety disorders also have problems with balance. As increasing numbers of children are diagnosed with anxiety, Tel Aviv University researchers have discovered that the link between balance and anxiety can be assessed at an early age and that something can be done about it before it becomes a problem.

Dr. Orit Bart at Tel Aviv University’s School of Health Professions, and her colleagues, have found that a simple course of physical treatment for balance problems can also resolve anxiety issues in children.  Her work offers new hope for normal social and emotional development for children with both disorders.

Establishing the connection

Anxiety has a significant impact on children’s personal and academic well-being. While not all kids with anxiety have balance problems, all those with balance problems do exhibit symptoms of anxiety, pointing to a link between the two conditions.

“This is a breakthrough in the field of occupational therapy,” says Dr. Bart.

Her study — done in collaboration with TAU researchers Yair Bar-Haim, Einat Weizman, Moran Levin, Avi Sadeh, and Matti Mintz, and to be published in Research in Developmental Disabilities — investigated the anxiety-balance connection in young children for the first time. Dr. Bart tracked children between the ages of five and seven who had been diagnosed with both problems to see how treatment would affect each disorder.

After a 12-week intervention of sensory-motor intervention, the children in Dr. Bart’s study improved their balance skills. The therapy also reduced the children’s anxiety to normal levels, she reports. As their balance and anxiety issues improved, the children’s self-esteem also increased.

Treating the mind through the body

“You can’t treat children with anxiety in a cognitive way because of their immaturity and lack of operational thinking. Working with the body may be the answer,” Dr. Bart explains. The treatment therefore focused on letting the children use equipment to experience their environment and move in space. Dr. Bart found that by working with their bodies, children could work through their emotional problems, including anxiety.

Dr. Bart is now working on expanding the initial results through a larger study with more control groups. The goal is to explore the exact nature of the relationship between balance and anxiety in children, and to focus the results on more specific treatment types.

“Young children who have anxiety should first be assessed for balance issues to see if that is the source of the problem,” says Dr. Bart. “We can now treat these children because we have a better understanding of the relation between these disorders.”


Not Just for Depression Anymore
12/18/2008

Prozac is regularly prescribed to ease the emotional pain of patients who are being treated for cancer. But can this common anti-depressant help to fight cancer itself?

Dr. Dan Peer of the Department of Cell Research and Immunology at Tel Aviv University is proving that it can.  A study he and his colleagues recently completed validates that Prozac (chemical name fluoxetine) dramatically enhances the effectiveness of a widely used anti-cancer drug.

“The good news is that the medical community won't have to wait — Prozac can be used for this purpose right away,” says Dr. Peer, noting that doctors in the U.S. already prescribe it to treat depression in chemotherapy patients.

Fighting drug resistance in colon cancer patients

“Prozac is a very interesting non-specific blocker of cancer resistance,” says Dr. Peer, whose study focused on colon cancer and the anti-cancer drug doxorubicin.

In their laboratory experiments, the Tel Aviv University scientists led by graduate student Mirit Argov together with Prof. Rimona Margalit, found that Prozac enhanced doxorubicin's efficacy more than 1,000%.  Prozac, in effect, worked to block the cancer drug from leaving the interior of the cancer cell and poisoning the healthy non-cancerous cells that surrounded it.

In animal models, a mild doxorubicin-fluoxetine treatment combination slowed down tumor progression significantly.  These results suggest that pairing Prozac with chemotherapeutic drugs to curb drug resistance warrants further clinical study, says Dr. Peer.

His research was just published in Cancer Letters, and his suggestions are now listed as recommendations in the latest version of Cancer Encyclopedia.

Working backward to make great advances

“Working with a major drug developer, we have validated Prozac's potential, and now Tel Aviv University can lead a humanitarian effort to save lives around the globe,” he says.

Since it is very hard to protect this patent because any clinician can prescribe Prozac, it is impossible for Tel Aviv University to commercialize its research, says Dr. Peer.  Instead, he suggests that researchers join forces internationally to implement retrospective studies of all the types of cancer treatment in which Prozac was prescribed.  And further clinical experiments to validate the use of Prozac with chemotherapy is also needed, he stresses.

“The next step is to take the files of chemo patients and determine whether they received Prozac for their depression,” says Dr. Peer. “This will streamline the understanding in the scientific community of whether, how and for which cancer-fighting drugs Prozac can be an effective partner. It will also give us invaluable information on how to design new drugs."

Dr. Peer's Tel Aviv University lab is also developing several new drug delivery nanotechnologies to bring novel therapeutics into breast, blood, pancreatic and brain cancers. A recent technological breakthrough to reprogram immune cells involved in ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease was reported in Science earlier this year and it is the basis of a new platform technology developed in his group.


Easing the Stress of Trauma
12/1/2008

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects as many as one in five of all Americans who survive a harrowing experience like rape, assault, war or terrorism. It has emotionally paralyzed survivors of 9/11 and broken up survivors’ families.

There is no broadly accepted treatment that can lower the chance of developing the disorder, but thanks to a Tel Aviv University researcher, a medical means of preventing PTSD may be just around the corner.

Prof. Joseph Zohar from the Sackler Medical School, Tel Aviv University, has found that an injection of cortisol shortly after exposure to a traumatic event may prevent the onset of PTSD. He is now taking his animal model findings to the U.S. National Institute of Health and hopes to start clinical trials on this exploratory research within the next year.

The research was recently published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

PTSD can strike “anyone, anytime”

Currently, a diagnosis of PTSD is made only after an individual has been living with an acute stress reaction for one month. By then it may be too late to counteract the syndrome.

“Ten to twenty percent of all individuals exposed to trauma develop PTSD,” says Prof. Zohar. “The challenge is to try to prevent or reduce these numbers. Until now, the clinical and research focus has been on treating PTSD once it developed. We propose to shift the focus to prevention.  Based on an animal model, our new clinical findings pave the way for a potential preventive treatment for future victims via cortisol injections.”

Although experienced widely among soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, PTSD can strike anyone  anytime who has witnessed or experienced a life-threatening event. Its victims dissociate from loved ones and may relive the traumatic event through everyday triggers, such as the smell of a neighbor’s barbecue or a sound on TV.

Normally, the production of cortisol, a stress hormone, increases immediately after the trauma, but with time returns to normal levels. In those who are diagnosed with PTSD, however, the body’s hormonal system is dysfunctional:  there is less secretion of cortisol after exposure, and researchers believe that this underproduction increases vulnerability to PTSD. Researchers propose that cortisol might be linked to the individual's ability to forget memories of the traumatic event.

The persistence of memory

Researchers from both Tel Aviv University and Ben Gurion University, found in an animal model that a high dose of corticosterone, when given immediately after the stress event, reduces the effect of trauma in mice. They believe that corticosterone may dampen an animal’s ability to “remember” the initial trauma time and time again.

The “stressor” in the mouse experiment was litter soaked in cat urine. Twenty-five percent of the mice presented with the litter showed signs of extreme stress, which the researchers correlated to acute stress reaction in humans. Mice that were given shots of corticosterone shortly after their exposure were significantly less "tense" when reminded of the initial trauma by the presentation of  a “stressor reminder” stimulus.

The researchers’ next step is to try this potential treatment option on humans in a controlled clinical setting. “The animal model we developed has given us the basis for investigating this important condition, and it has become an essential tool for clinicians around the globe,” adds Prof. Zohar, an internationally recognized expert in the field of PTSD and obsessive-compulsive disorders. He has established important international organizations in these fields and advises institutions like the World Health Organization.

In Israel, Prof. Joseph Zohar leads the Israeli Defense Force initiative for treating PTSD, and serves as a special advisor to the Ministry of Defense. He is also director at the Psychiatry Division of the Chaim Sheba Medical Center Tel Hashomer in Central Israel.


A License to Drive with ADHD
11/3/2008

If your teen can’t pass a driver’s test, it might not mean more time in driver’s ed is needed. It might be due to ADHD.

Researchers from Tel Aviv University caution that ADHD, an attention deficit disorder common in teens, is a serious driver’s disability. To alleviate the problem, and to decrease ADHD-related road accidents and fatalities, Tel Aviv University has developed a new driver’s training program in collaboration with occupational therapy departments in affiliated Israeli hospitals. Connecting their own clinical research to advances in occupational therapy, TAU researchers have merged the two disciplines in a novel approach to treat drivers, old and young, with ADHD.

Speaking from experience

Leading the new initiative is Dr. Navah Ratzon from TAU’s Department of Occupational Therapy. “There is no doubt in my mind,” says Dr. Ratzon, “that ADHD interferes with one’s ability to drive safely.

“The youth who fail their drivers’ tests over and over may be suffering from ADHD. Even if they eventually pass these tests, they’re still more likely than others to become involved in car accidents.”

Dr. Ratzon would know. She’s a mother of five who has a challenged ADHD driver at home.  “One of my children suffers from ADHD. She’s a good driver technically but has done the most damage to my car,” says Dr. Ratzon. Responding to this need in her own family, she devised a straightforward therapist-supervised approach to re-training ADHD teens on how to drive. Her approach could save lives.

Get treatment before getting behind the wheel

Many cases of ADHD remain undiagnosed. If you suspect that your teen may be one of the hundreds of thousands of youngsters with the condition, Dr. Razton suggests you take your child for evaluation by a specialist at a driving rehabilitation center  before you let him or her get behind the wheel.

Using customized state-of-the-art tools, Dr. Ratzon and her colleagues at the Tel Aviv University-affiliated Rabin Medical Center have developed therapeutic guidelines for occupational therapists to follow. One way the TAU specialists “re-train” ADHD drivers is by creating “a systematic screening of the visual field.” Part of this screening includes a checklist of things every ADHD driver must do when driving. While these activities may come naturally to others, ADHD drivers need to remind themselves when to look at their mirrors or check for hazards on the road. This checklist helps keep the driver’s mind on the road, says Dr. Ratzon.

While most teens outgrow ADHD by their early twenties, the disorder can persist into old age. “While there are very few articles on ADHD and driving,” says Dr. Ratzon, “new research indicates that ADHD doesn’t really go away.  People continue to suffer from its symptoms. Even those old enough to be grandparents can benefit from our new driver’s training program.”

Medication and timing help

Before drivers’ therapy, Tel Aviv University clinicians first recommend that those that have been diagnosed with ADHD take medication prescribed to them. Studies in America have shown that ADHD teens who take Ritalin or similar prescribed medications drive much more safely than those who don’t.

It is also important, Dr. Ratzon notes, that an ADHD teen learns which hours and circumstances are better for driving.  Some ADHD drivers function better during long drives on country roads, where there are fewer distractions, rather than on short drives through the city. Some may drive better at night than during the day, says Prof. Ratzon. These preferences can be determined with the help of a driving rehabilitation center.


Appealing the Death Sentence for Brain Cells
5/29/2008

A new drug candidate discovered by Tel Aviv University researcher Prof. Illana Gozes may lead to an effective treatment against the debilitative Alzheimer’s disease. This compound could also treat a number of diseases where patients suffer from cognitive deficits, such as schizophrenia and Parkinson’s, by limiting damage to the brain.

The new drug candidate, known as AL-108, was found to protect American patients with mild cognitive damage against memory loss by protecting the skeleton and transport system of brain cells. The new drug candidate has passed its Phase II clinical studies in U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved clinical trials.  AL-108 is currently being developed by the Canada-based Allon Therapeutics Inc.

An emphasis on living brain cells

“My logic is that if you try to protect a dead cell, it won’t work. We need to protect the living cell between the death sentence of having Alzheimer’s and actual cell death,” says Prof. Gozes. Her discovery, now the drug candidate AL-108, provides nerve cell protection. Publications reporting on the efficacy of AL-108 in animal models have appeared in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, the Journal of Molecular Neuroscience, the Journal of Biological Chemistry and many more.

Prof. Gozes, a co-founder of Allon Therapeutics and the company’s Chief Scientific Officer, targeted support cells in the brain known as glia, which make up the majority of cells in the brain and are those that facilitate brain repair. She hypothesized that proteins produced by glia, and responsive to brain injury, may be able to repair the damage caused by neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Like train rails without ties

Prof. Gozes and her team discovered a protein (ADNP) involved in brain repair, but if developed into a drug it would be too large to cross the blood-brain barrier. Cutting the protein into fragments, Prof. Gozes determined a small portion of the protein (NAP) provides potent neuroprotection by protecting nerve cells against severe oxidative stress and the toxicity associated with diseases such as Alzheimer’s. AL-108, the drug candidate under development now, is an intranasal formulation based on NAP.

What happens in the nerve cells of Alzheimer’s brains can be likened to a derailed train, says Prof. Gozes. The nerve cell skeleton — the microtubules — are like the rails, and a protein called “tau” functions like the ties between the rails. In Alzheimer’s, the ties fall off, the tracks fall apart and nerve cells die. AL-108 however, seems to prevent this process from accelerating.

AL-108, which could be ready in as early as 5 years, targets the microtubules and protects against amyloid plaques — a characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. AL-108 also seems to be able to maintain brain microtubule functioning, preventing memory loss and the deterioration of other cognitive functions, such as learning abilities, in those whose mental functioning has already started to decline.

“It’s important to stress that these are drug candidates in clinical development in North America for now, and will not be ready for several years,” says Prof. Gozes, who co-founded Allon Therapeutics with Tel Aviv University’s technology transfer arm Ramot.

International collaboration with United States organizations

Support for basic science conducted at Professor Gozes’ laboratory at Tel Aviv University was and is obtained in part from the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation, which originally supported her partnership with Dr. Douglas Brenneman from the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. to advance the basic research.

At Tel Aviv University, Professor Gozes directs the Adams Super Center for Brain Studies, the Levie-Edersheim-Gitter Functional Brain Imaging Institute, the Elton Laboratory for Molecular Neuroendocrinology and is the incumbent of the Lily and Avraham Gildor Chair for the Investigation of Growth Factors. She is also the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Molecular Neuroscience

For more information, please see http://www.allontherapeutics.com/.


Keep Boys and Girls Together, TAU Research Suggests
4/11/2008

Boys and girls may learn differently, but American parents should think twice before moving their children to sex-segregated schools. A new Tel Aviv University study has found that girls improve boys’ grades markedly at school.

“Being with more girls is good for everybody,” says Prof. Analia Schlosser, an economist from the Eitan Berglas School of Economics at Tel Aviv University. “We find that both boys and girls do better when there are more girls in the class.” She investigated girls and boys in mixed classrooms in the elementary, middle, and high-school grades of the Israeli school system.

In an unpublished paper, Prof. Schlosser concluded that classes with more than 55 percent of girls resulted in better exam results and less violent outbursts overall. “It appears that this effect is due to the positive influence the girls are adding to the classroom environment,” says Prof. Schlosser. She carried out the study while on a post-doctoral fellowship at Princeton University, and will study the effects of gender in higher education lecture halls next.

This is one of few studies of its kind to use scientific data to address the question of gender effects in school.

The report card

Boys with more female peers in their classes show higher enrollment rates in both advanced math and science classes, but overall benefits were found in all grades for both sexes.

Prof. Schlosser found that primary-school classrooms with a female majority showed increased academic success for both boys and girls, along with a notable improvement in subjects like Science and Math. In the middle schools, girls were found to have better academic achievement in English, Languages and Math. And in high school, the classrooms which had the best academic achievements overall were consistently those that had a higher proportion of girls enrolled.

An educated guess

A higher percentage of girls lowers the amount of classroom disruption and fosters a better relationship between pupils and their teacher, a study of the data suggests. Teachers are less tired in classrooms with more girls, and pupils overall seem to be more satisfied when a high female-to-male ratio persists.

Prof. Schlosser was inspired to the study by a “renewed interest on the effects of classroom gender composition on students’ learning, since a new amendment to America’s Title IX regulations gives communities more flexibility in providing single-sex classes and schools.”

Prof. Schlosser concludes that American educators should reconsider the effects of the new trend of same-sex segregation on different sectors of society. Gains for girls from classroom gender segregation could be offset by the loss of boys.


Why Some Depressed Girls Can't Smell The Roses
1/3/2008

Can’t smell the roses? Maybe you’re depressed. Smell too much like a rose yourself? Maybe you’ve got the same problem. Scientists from Tel Aviv University recently linked depression to a biological mechanism that affects the olfactory glands. It might explain why some women, without realizing it, wear too much perfume.

Scientific research that supports this theory was published this year in the journal Arthritis and Rheumatism. “Our scientific findings suggest that women who are depressed are also losing their sense of smell, and may overcompensate by using more perfume,” explains researcher Prof. Yehuda , a member of the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University. “We also believe that depression has biological roots and may be an immune system response to certain physiological cues.”

Women who are depressed are also more likely to lose weight. With a reduced sense of smell, they are less likely to have a healthy appetite, he says.

Prof. Shoenfeld draws his conclusions from lifetime research on autoimmune diseases, focusing on conditions such as lupus, arthritis and rheumatism.

More than a feeling

Affecting about 1.5 million Americans, depression accompanying lupus, Prof. Shoenfeld has found, is much more than an emotional reaction to being ill. It appears to have a biological cause.

In lupus patients and those with other autoimmune diseases, a particle known as an “autoantibody” attacks the person’s own immune system, appearing in the human body as an aberrant reaction to autoimmune diseases. This particle “is a real novelty,” says Prof. Shoenfeld. “We have found that, when generated, it weakens a person’s sense of smell and can induce the feeling of depression.”

Scientists today widely accept the fact that people with Alzheimer’s disease lose their sense of smell. Prof. Shoenfeld’s research is the first that links depression to smell in lupus patients, however.

The implications are wide and can be applied to the general population, says Prof. Shoenfeld. “People who are depressed seem to respond well to aromatherapy. Certain smells seem to help them overcome the effects of the biological factors, suggesting that depression may have a biological cause.”

This research also raises questions about the cause of psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia.  “There may be an organic cause to these disorders, and if this is the case, clinicians might have to change their attitude about current therapies they use,” Prof. Shoenfeld says. “I think that science is able to show that aromatherapy might not be just for quacks. After all, some of these remedies have been used since the time of the Egyptians to treat organic diseases.”

Prof. Shoenfeld also suggests that a standardized “smell test” could be used by doctors to help diagnose depression as well as autoimmune diseases.

Retail therapy and aromatherapy

He adds that the association between one’s sense of smell and depression has interesting implications for “smell marketing,” used by retailers to encourage shoppers to buy, especially around holiday time. “These tactics are already being used by retailers and banks all over the world,” says Prof. Shoenfeld.

“The retail industry has learned that if it splashes good smells around, it can convince clients to buy more and invest more money. It certainly has an effect on one’s mood.”

Prof. Shoenfeld is an internationally recognized expert in autoimmune diseases and a medical doctor. He is the head of the Department of Medicine “B” at the Sheba Medical Center in Israel and edits four medical journals, including Harefua (in Hebrew), The Journal of Autoimmunity, Autoimmunity Reviews and the Israel Medical Association Journal. Work on this recent study was done in close collaboration with Prof. Joab Chapman, the head of the Neurology Department at Sheba Medical Center, and a professor at Tel Aviv University.


Burning Out? Try Logging Off
11/26/2007

You might think that a long vacation is the way to beat job burnout. But the kind of vacation you have is just as important if not more important than its length, concludes Prof. Dov Eden, an organizational psychologist from Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Management.

The key to a quality vacation, he says, is to put work at a distance. And keep it there.

“Using work cell phones and checking company email at the poolside is not a vacation,” Prof. Eden says. “Persons who do this are shackled to electronic tethers which in my opinion is little different from being in jail.”

For the past ten years, Prof. Eden has been studying “respite effects,” which measure relief from chronic job stress before, during, and after vacations away from the workplace. Electronic connectivity exacts a price from those who stay wired into the office while away from work. It marks the end of true “respite relief,” says Prof. Eden, and is a cause of chronic job stress.

“If I were a manager, I would insist that my employees leave their cell phones at work during vacation and not check their email while away,” Prof. Eden warns. “In the long run, the employee will be better rested and better able to perform his or her job because true respite affords an opportunity to restore depleted psychological resources.

“Employees who feel compelled to be at the beck and call of work at all times are unlikely to recover from the ill-effects of chronic job stress. This is a causal chain that eventually gets internalized as psychological and behavioral responses that can bring on serious chronic disease.”

Recently Prof. Eden, his student Dr. Oranit Davidson, and Prof. Mina Westman (all at Tel Aviv University) surveyed 800 professors from eight universities in Israel, the United States, and New Zealand. The researchers measured stress and strain before, during, and after a sabbatical leave of a semester or a whole year. They found that those who took a long sabbatical break experienced about the same amount of relief (and returned to pre-sabbatical levels of stress and strain in just about the same amount of time) as people who had taken either a week-long or long-weekend vacation.

Stress and psychological strain before, during, and after the respite were measured using a questionnaire and those on sabbatical were compared to a similar group of university academics who did not go on sabbatical. Participants included professors at Berkeley, Florida State University, and The University of Texas at Arlington, among others.

Whether a vacation was as short as a long weekend or as long as a year, within three weeks back at work (and possibly even before that), the respite-relief effect had virtually washed out, Prof. Eden observed.

“Among many employees we have studied over the years we have found that those who detach from their back-home work situation benefit the most from their respite,” says Prof. Eden. “Moreover, these individuals are probably less likely to experience job burnout. It’s the ones who can’t detach from the constant flow of job demands that are most likely to burnout.

“If I could choose,” concludes Prof. Eden, “my educated guess is that I would prefer to have vacations more often, but shorter in length.”

And does Prof. Eden have a cell phone? “I refuse to enslave myself to one of those devices,” he says. “I only use one on the days I visit my grandchildren.”

Prof. Eden’s most recent findings were presented at the last biannual meeting of “Work, Stress and Health” in Miami, an event sponsored by the American Psychological Association. Previous studies on Prof. Eden’s research have been published in top-tier journals including the Journal of Applied Psychology, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, and Organizational Behavior and Human Performance.


Tel Aviv University Redefines "Internet Addiction" and Sets New Standards for Its Treatment
8/15/2007

Is your first craving in the morning for your computer mouse? Do you obsessively check email in the middle of the night?

If so, you may be among the ten percent of all Internet surfers afflicted with “Internet addiction disorder,” a pathological condition that can lead to anxiety and severe depression. To better diagnose and treat Internet addiction, Dr. Pinhas Dannon, a psychiatrist from Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine, recommends that it be grouped with other extreme addictive disorders such as gambling, sex addiction, and kleptomania.

A senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University, Dr. Dannon is known worldwide for work in the area of gambling and addiction, a major research focus for him since 1995. His first article on kleptomania was published in 1996. He will present his new research findings on addiction at the National Gambling Council’s meeting in Las Vegas this November.

Internet addiction is currently classified by mental health professionals as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a mild to severe mental health condition that results in an urge to engage in ritualistic thoughts and behavior, such as excessive handwashing or, in the case of the Internet, Web surfing. “But we are saying that we need to look at Internet addiction differently,” reports Dr. Dannon on behalf of his colleagues from Tel Aviv University and the Be'er Ya'acov Mental Health Center. “Internet addiction is not manifesting itself as an ‘urge.’ It’s more than that. It’s a deep ‘craving.’ And if we don’t make the change in the way we classify Internet addiction, we won’t be able to treat it in the proper way.”

Two groups are at greatest risk from Internet addiction disorder, Dr. Dannon warns. The first are teenagers. But more surprisingly, the second are women and men in their mid-50s suffering from the loneliness of an “empty nest.” The symptoms of Internet addiction in both groups are vague and are often difficult to diagnose. Sufferers may experience loss of sleep, anxiety when not online, isolation from family and peer groups, loss of work, and periods of deep depression.

Treating Internet addiction can only be done effectively, believes Dr. Dannon, if the condition is treated like any other extreme and menacing addiction. For example, a clinician could use talk therapy or prescribe medication such as Serotonin blockers and Naltrexone, which are also effective against kleptomania and pathological gambling. No less important, Dr. Dannon stresses, is that mental health practitioners in schools and workplaces should be made aware of the risks of Internet addiction. Workshops on these risks should be held in both milieus, he advises.

Dr. Dannon and his colleagues have recently reported their findings in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology; and have since waged a mini-campaign around the world to warn doctors about the dangers associated with excessive Internet use. Their research on gambling addiction has been used to educate American doctors taking the annual “Continuing Medical Education” test taken before the doctors can renew a license to practice medicine.

According to Dr. Dannon, Internet addicts are inevitable and a product of modernization. “They are just like anyone else who is addicted to coffee, exercise, or talking on their cellular phone. As the times change, so do our addictions.”


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