Tag Archive | "Department of Psychology"

Researchers SPARK the Nation’s Largest Autism Study

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Researchers SPARK the Nation’s Largest Autism Study


Spark_Logo_CMYK[1]Special to UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (April 21, 2016)Researchers from the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD) in UM’s Department of Psychology just helped launch the Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge, or SPARK, an online research initiative designed to become the largest autism study ever undertaken in the United States.

Sponsored by the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI), SPARK, for the Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge, will collect information and DNA for genetic analysis from 50,000 individuals with autism—and from their families—to advance our understanding of the causes of this condition and to hasten the discovery of supports and treatments.

UM-NSU CARD is one of a select group of 21 leading national research institutions chosen by SFARI to assist with recruitment. Melissa Hale, clinical assistant professor, and her colleagues in the College of Arts and Sciences, Anibal Gutierrez and Michael Alessandri, executive director of UM-NSU CARD, are leading the SPARK effort locally.

UM-NSU CARD is a state-funded resource and support program dedicated to improving the lives of individuals with autism and related disabilities, including deaf-blindness and pervasive developmental disorders.

“SPARK empowers researchers to make new discoveries that will ultimately lead to the development of new supports and treatments to improve lives, which makes it one of the most insightful research endeavors to date, in addition to being the largest genetic research initiative in the U.S.,” Hale says.

Autism is known to have a strong genetic component. To date, approximately 50 genes have been identified that almost certainly play a role in autism, and scientists estimate that an additional 300 or more are involved. By studying these genes, associated biological mechanisms, and how genetics interact with environmental factors, researchers can better understand the condition’s causes, and link them to the spectrum of symptoms, skills, and challenges of those affected.

SPARK aims to speed up autism research by inviting participation from this large, diverse autism community, with the goal of including individuals with a professional diagnosis of autism and of both sexes and all ages, backgrounds, races, geographic locations, and socioeconomic situations.

SPARK will connect participants to researchers, offering them the unique opportunity to impact the future of autism research by joining any of the multiple studies offered through SPARK. The initiative will catalyze research by creating large-scale access to study participants whose DNA may be selectively analyzed for a specific scientific question of interest.

SPARK also will elicit feedback from individuals and parents of children with autism to develop a robust research agenda that is meaningful for them. Anyone interested in learning more about SPARK or in participating can visit SPARKforAutism.org/card, or e-mail SPARK@psy.miami.edu.

About SPARK

SPARK (Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge) is a national autism research initiative that will connect individuals with a professional diagnosis of autism and their biological family members to research opportunities to advance our understanding of autism. SPARK’s goal in doing so is not only to better understand autism, but to accelerate the development of new treatments and supports.

SPARK was designed to be easily accessible to the entire autism community and was fashioned with input from adults with autism, parents, researchers, clinicians, service providers, and advocates.

Registering for this first-of-its-kind initiative can be done entirely online in the convenience of one’s home and at no cost. DNA will be collected via saliva kits shipped directly to participants. Once the SPARK participant’s family has returned their saliva samples and provided some medical and family history information, the SPARK participant will receive a $50 gift card. SPARK will provide access to online resources and the latest research in autism, which may provide participants and families with valuable information to help address daily challenges.

For researchers, SPARK provides a large, well-characterized cohort of genetic, medical and behavioral data, and will result in cost-savings for researchers by reducing start-up costs for individual studies.

SPARK is entirely funded by the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI).

 

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Stress Management Enhances Breast Cancer Survival

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Stress Management Enhances Breast Cancer Survival


antoni bcCORAL GABLES, Fla. (December 1, 2015) – Newly published research from a National Cancer Institute-funded randomized trial shows that women who were taught skills to manage stress early in their breast cancer treatment had improved survival rates and longer intervals of remission 8 to 15 years post-diagnosis.

Michael Antoni, leader of the Adaptation to Cancer Treatment and Survivorship group of the Cancer Control Program at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and a professor of psychology, psychiatry, and behavioral sciences, and his research team previously found that cognitive-behavioral stress management (CBSM)—an intervention approach Antoni created at UM—improves psychological adaptation and lowers distress and inflammatory signaling in circulating cells during breast cancer treatment and long-term follow-ups.

Women receiving CBSM learned techniques like muscle relaxation and deep breathing as well as skills to change negative thoughts and improve coping strategies in ten weekly group sessions.

This secondary analysis, published online and in the November 2015 issue of Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, examined whether breast cancer patients who received CBSM in the weeks after surgery had improved survival and a greater “disease-free interval” until recurrence.

“Our ongoing work is examining whether the effects of stress management on depressive symptoms and inflammatory biomarkers during the first year of treatment are linked to longer-term disease recurrence and survival,” said Antoni.

Antoni, also a professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, and researchers in the Department of Psychology noted that prior research has showed that distress, negative mood, and heightened inflammation during treatment may all facilitate disease progression and poorer health outcomes, thus “we wanted to test whether participating in a program like CBSM could decrease the risk of disease progression and mortality over the long term.”

The study is titled “A randomized controlled trial of cognitive-behavioral stress management in breast cancer: survival and recurrence at 11-year follow-up.”

Lead author Jamie Stagl, who earned his Ph.D. in psychology at UM after the research period, is currently a post-doctoral fellow in psychiatric oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston. In addition to Antoni, who also serves as director of UM’s Center for Psycho-Oncology Research, other coauthors include Suzanne C. Lechner, Charles S. Carver, Laura C. Bouchard, Lisa M. Gudenkauf, Devika R. Jutagir, Alain Diaz, Qilu Yu, Bonnie Blomberg, Gail Ironson, and Stefan Gluck.

The researchers are now testing whether changes in inflammatory gene expression during and after the stress management intervention predict disease outcomes up to 15 years later, and are developing and testing even shorter versions of the stress management program to see if five-week versions of programs specifically targeting either relaxation training or cognitive behavioral coping skills training are equivalent to the ten-week CBSM program.

Additional versions of stress management interventions that are adapted to meet the needs of specific vulnerable cancer populations—African American women, Latinas, or older women of all races and ethnicities, for example—are also being tested.

“Our work is unique in that more than one-third of the participants were of an ethnic minority, compared to mostly non-Hispanic White women studied in prior research, which means that the findings may be generalizable to the larger population of breast cancer patients,” Antoni said. “Our overarching goal is to improve survivorship and health outcomes by reaching patients early in the cancer treatment process and providing them the tools they need to manage current and future challenges on their journey.”

The latest publication is published by Springer and can be accessed online at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10549-015-3626-6.

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Babies Time Their Smiles to Make Their Moms Smile Back


UM News

Diego.San.Baby.Robot

As part of a National Science Foundation effort to use robots to better understand human development, researchers programmed a toddler-like robot to behave like the babies they studied. Photo courtesy of UC San Diego.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (September 23, 2015) — Why do babies smile at their parents? Are they trying to achieve something or is it a random act? In the September 23 issue of PLOS ONE, a team of computer scientists, roboticists, and developmental psychologists confirm what most parents already suspect: when babies smile, they do so with a purpose—to make the person they interact with smile back.

In addition, babies reach that goal by using sophisticated timing, much like comedians who time their jokes to maximize audience response. But there is a twist: babies seem to be doing this while smiling as little as possible. Read the full story

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Neuroscientist Teams Up with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue on Mindfulness Study


Special to UM News

Jha.MDFD

Miami-Dade Fire Chief Dave Downey and UM neuroscientist Amishi Jha

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (July 13, 2015) – The Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department will partner with University of Miami neuroscientist Amishi Jha on an innovative research study to investigate how mindfulness and relaxation training can help firefighters better cope with the high stress and challenging nature of their demanding service.

A recent study by Jha and her colleagues suggests that mindfulness training bolsters cognitive performance in pre-deployment military populations, and may be useful in other high-stress, high-performance cohorts.

“Our program aims to understand if the human attention system can be made stronger and more effective using these training programs,” said Jha, associate professor of psychology and director of Contemplative Neuroscience for the UMindfulness Initiative.

Jha, the lead researcher on the study, is collaborating with Scott Rogers, director of programs and training for the UMindfulness Initiative and of UM Law’s Mindfulness in Law Program. Their previous research found that mindfulness training helps curb mind wandering and improves attention as high-stress undergraduates near exam season. Jha will begin the new project this summer, with Rogers delivering an innovative mindfulness and relaxation training program to Miami-Dade firefighters.

The Jha-fire rescue collaboration is one phase of a larger research project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, which aims to determine if mindfulness and relaxation training might help protect individuals in high-stress, high-demand careers—an area of interest that is drawing national attention.

“These programs have been found to reduce stress, improve sleep and mood, as well as protect against depression and improve relationships,” Jha said. “Through our work with the military, we’ve also found that mindfulness- and relaxation-based brain fitness programs improves memory, attention, and situational awareness.”

Miami-Dade Fire Chief Dave Downey said, “We know that even though firefighters are strong and resilient, we, too, may suffer from the high pressures and stresses of our daily work.”

Gary Gonzalez, a retired battalion chief for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, has been practicing mindfulness for nearly two years. “There is no question it would have improved my work performance, my leadership and decision-making skills, and my ability to more effectively manage the stress of the job if I had started 20 years ago,” he said. “I wish I was given the opportunity to learn this brain fitness program while I was still working.”

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Autism Researchers Discover Age-Specific Brain Changes

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Autism Researchers Discover Age-Specific Brain Changes


UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (March 20, 2015) – The field of autism research has tried to find a central theory underlying brain changes associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Now, a new University of Miami study shows that individuals with the disorder exhibit different patterns of brain connectivity than typically developing (TD) individuals and that these patterns adjust as the individual ages.

“Our findings suggest that developmental stage must be taken into account to accurately build models that show how the brains of individuals with autism differ from neurotypical individuals,” said Lucina Uddin, assistant professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences and corresponding author of the study. “We believe that taking a developmental approach to examining brain connectivity in autism is critical for predicting response to treatment in young children with ASD.”

The human brain is composed of more than one trillion cells called neurons. They interact with one another to form complex signaling networks. Previous studies have identified patterns of both functional hypo- and hyper-connectivity of these signaling networks in individuals with ASD. Published in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical, the study, “Developmental Changes in Large-Scale Network Connectivity in Autism,” attempts to explain these conflicting results by indicating that the developmental stage of the individual plays a key role.

The key findings include:

  • Children (ages 7 to 11) with ASD exhibit hyper-connectivity within large-scale brain networks as well as decreased between-network connectivity when compared to TD children.
  • Adolescents (ages 11 to 18) with ASD do not differ in within-network connectivity, but have a decrease in between-network connectivity when compared to TD adolescents.
  • Adults (older than 18) with ASD show neither within- nor between-network differences in functional connectivity compared with typical adults.

The findings suggest that alterations in the networks of the brain’s cortex may trigger the complex behavioral characteristics observed in individuals with ASD.

“This study helps us understand the functional organization of brain networks and how they change across the lifespan in autism,” said Jason S. Nomi, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at UM and lead author of the study.

The researchers are currently working to explicitly characterize an important developmental transition in individuals with autism: the onset of puberty.

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