Tag Archive | "Department of Psychology"

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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Minds at Attention: UM Study Shows Soldiers Benefit from Pre-Deployment Mindfulness Training


Special to UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (February 11, 2015) – Rather than the calm before the storm, the period before soldiers are deployed to a conflict zone can be a time of intense stress. Soldiers receive intensive training for their missions and prepare themselves psychologically to leave loved ones behind to face dangerous, high-stress situations. Although the goal of the predeployment period is to ensure that soldiers are prepared for the mission, studies have shown the presence of impaired cognitive functioning and psychological health during this critical interval.

Amid continuing deployments of U.S. soldiers to the world hotspots to assist in missions related to fighting terrorism or the Ebola virus, a University of Miami study led by neuroscientist Amishi Jha has made a significant discovery that expands increasing scientific evidence that one of the best ways to protect soldiers may be by training their minds.

The success of military operations requires that a high volume of information, arriving at a fast pace under potentially ambiguous circumstances, be used to make quick decisions and take decisive action. Yet, access to the best intelligence or equipment is of little use if a soldier’s mind is distracted. Errors resulting from a soldier’s own attentional lapses may lead to lifelong suffering due to physical, psychological, or moral injury.

“Soldiers are experts at standing at attention,” said Jha, associate professor in the Department of Psychology in UM’s College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator of the study. “However, maintaining a mind at attention under the intense physical, emotional, and cognitive demands they face is a more difficult task.”

Attentional lapses and mind wandering (or off-task thinking) signal a distracted mind that is prone to errors. Jha’s study demonstrated a positive link between mindfulness training (MT) and protection against attentional lapses and mind wandering. Mindfulness is the ability to be aware and attentive of the present moment without emotional reactivity or volatility.

Jha’s prior research found that military service members who received 24 hours of MT benefited in their mood and cognitive performance based on how much time they spent engaging in mindfulness practices daily. The current study went a step further, seeking to investigate which aspects of MT programs work best to curb attentional lapses and mind wandering when training is shortened to eight hours over eight weeks.

The results of the study, funded by the U.S. Army, are significant because during the stress-filled and high-demand predeployment period, soldiers do not have the time to devote to a lengthier MT regimen. However, this is a time period in which they may need it most.

Likewise, the findings are important for civilians in high-stress, high-performance jobs in which time is extremely limited. “Moment-to-moment information from the environment is necessary to ensure quick, decisive action. In addition to soldiers, police officers, firefighters, trauma surgeons, day traders, pilots, and athletes may all benefit from short-form mindfulness training to curb attentional lapses and mind wandering,” added Jha.

“With the continued deployment of our soldiers to face complex threats around the world, these results are a critical addition to our ever-evolving readiness and resiliency toolkit,” said MG Walter Piatt, Deputy Commanding General of the U.S. Army in Europe. “Ensuring our men and women are both mentally and physically prepared is essential to mission success,” he said. “This study provides important information to help us do that.”

The researchers studied three groups of military service members, offering MT to two of the groups, comprising a total of 75 soldiers at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, eight to ten months before deployment to Afghanistan. The study measured attention and performance by looking at the impact of short-form MT on soldiers’ results on a Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART), a test designed to measure attentional lapses and mind wandering.

One of the two groups receiving MT received a type of mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT), which emphasized engagement in MT exercises during each of the class meetings. The second group received a version of MMFT primarily comprising didactic information and discussions focused on stress and resilience. The third group of 17 U.S. Marine reservists tested during their predeployment training interval received no training and served as a military control group. The study also included a civilian group that also received no training.

While the SART scores in civilians remained stable over eight weeks of typical civilian life, scores significantly declined in the military control group, underscoring the deleterious effects of the demands of predeployment interval on attention. After the eight-week course, the MT group with training emphasis outperformed the group with the didactic emphasis as well as the no-training military control group.

Soldiers in both groups who received MT reported being more aware of their attention compared to the military control group at the end of the eight weeks.

In sum, scientists found that training-focused MT promotes cognitive resilience by protecting against degradation of attention during high-stress periods.

The study, “Minds ‘at Attention’: Mindfulness Training Curbs Attentional Lapses in Military Cohorts,” is published online ahead of print by PLOS ONE. Additional authors who contributed to the study are: Alexandra B. Morrison, Ph.D., Suzanne Parker, and Nina Rostrup, of the University of Miami, Justin Dainer-Best, of the University of Texas at Austin, and Elizabeth A. Stanley, Ph.D., of the Walsh School of Foreign Service and Department of Government, Georgetown University. She is the creator of MMFT and a member of the board of directors of the Mind Fitness Training Institute, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) established to support the delivery of MMFT.

 

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Rod Wellens, Longtime Chair of Psychology, Passes Away

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Rod Wellens, Longtime Chair of Psychology, Passes Away


By Annette Gallagher
UM News

UM's Department of Psychology experienced tremendous growth during Rod Wellens' tenure as chair.

Rod Wellens

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (December 19, 2014) — Albert Rodney “Rod” Wellens, professor and longtime chair of the Department of Psychology who left an indelible mark on the University, the community, and the people he mentored, passed away at home and surrounded by his family on December 17 after an illness. He was 68.

Wellens, who joined the University in 1972, became a full professor in 1988 and chair of the psychology department in 1992—a post he held with distinction until 2013. Read the full story

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Researchers Develop Novel Family Therapy for Schizophrenia

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Researchers Develop Novel Family Therapy for Schizophrenia


SchizophreniaCORAL GABLES, Fla. (November 11, 2014)—University researchers have developed a family-focused, culturally informed treatment for schizophrenia (CIT-S), one of first to incorporate elements of the patient’s cultural background as part of therapy. Their findings are published online ahead of print in the Journal of Family Psychology.

The novel treatment aimed to reduce patients’ symptoms and improve patient and caregiver emotional well-being, explains Amy Weisman de Mamani, associate professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator of the study.

“We have developed a program for the treatment of schizophrenia that taps into the family’s cultural beliefs, values, traditions, and religious practices to help them come to terms with the illness and better manage the symptoms,” Weisman de Mamani said. “We found that adding culturally based segments to an already established family-focused treatment for schizophrenia reduced patients’ psychiatric symptoms above and beyond an intervention that focused solely on educating family members about the illness.”

For the study, patients diagnosed with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder and their caregivers participated in 15 weekly one-hour sessions. The treatment covered a range of topics and skills, including education about the illness, techniques to bolster family cohesion, and adaptive use of religious coping, communication training, and problem-solving. Homework also was assigned for family members to practice the skills learned during therapy. A control group received three sessions of psycho-education about the illness.

Participants who completed the study came from 46 separate families of different ethnic backgrounds. About half of the families were randomly assigned to the CIT-S program and the other half to the control program. Assessments occurred in either English or Spanish, depending on the individual family’s preference.

The findings indicated that patients who participated in the CIT-S program had significant reductions in their psychiatric symptoms (e.g., hallucinations, delusions, blunted affect) and their caregivers reported significantly lower levels of guilt, shame, and burden.

“The treatment is easy to administer and treatment manuals and materials are available in English and in Spanish,” Weisman de Mamani said. “We hope that the ease and accessibility of CIT-S will facilitate dissemination to hospitals and clinics that service individuals with schizophrenia and their loved ones.”

The study, “A Randomized Clinical Trial to Test the Efficacy of a Family-Focused, Culturally Informed Therapy for Schizophrenia,” was co-authored by Marc J. Weintraub,  Kayla Gurak, and Jessica Maura, who are PhD. students from the Department of Psychology.

The next step is for the researchers to test whether CIT-S can outperform a matched length control treatment that includes all of the ingredients of CIT-S, except those that directly tap into participants’ cultural beliefs, values, and behaviors. They also want to verify that changes in the use of adaptive cultural practices and belief systems are what account for the efficacy of CIT-S.

 

 

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Breast Cancer Foundation Funds UM Study on Managing Stress


By Annette Gallagher
UM News

The two-year study will focus on immune system functioning following a five-week cognitive behavioral or relaxation training program.

Coral Gables, Fla. (July 7, 2014) – Can psychological intervention help women adapt to the stresses of breast cancer? It appears that a brief, five-week psychological intervention can have beneficial effects for women who are dealing with the stresses of breast cancer diagnosis and surgery. Intervening during the early period after surgery may reduce women’s distress, and providing cognitive or relaxation skills for stress management may help them adapt to treatment.

UM researchers found that women who received cognitive behavioral or relaxation training reported greater improvements in mood than women in a health education control group that also lasted five weeks. Women in the cognitive behavioral group also reported reduced breast cancer-specific distress, as well as improved emotional well-being, while women in the relaxation group reported reduced disruptions in social activities.

The next step in that research, which will be funded by the Florida Breast Cancer Foundation for a two-year period, is to identify the cellular and molecular changes that could explain these effects, according to Michael Antoni, professor in the Department of Psychology at the College of Arts and Sciences and co-leader of the Cancer Prevention Control and Survivorship program at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. The grant will support Momentum2: The Breakthrough Campaign for the University of Miami.

Antoni’s team hopes to show that the five-week program produces the same changes in stress hormone levels and measures of immune function and inflammatory processes over an extended follow-up period that have been seen in patients who participated in longer programs, typically from 10 weeks to 12 months. Indicators of psychological and physiological well-being may provide a pathway through which these interventions could improve quality of life and health outcomes over the long-term survivorship period, with positive effects seen as much as five years later.

The study, co-led by Bonnie Blomberg, professor of microbiology and immunology at Sylvester, will measure the changes in cortisol levels, check immune responses in cells, and look for decreased inflammation at the RNA level in cells. The new grant research, which began July 1, focuses on the women who show the most elevated levels of distress in the weeks after breast cancer surgery.

“The hope is that these psychoneuroimmunologic (PNI) effects will show us clearly how therapies like relaxation therapy can affect immune system regulation,” Antoni said.  “Does effective stress management reduce cortisol levels, increase immune function, and decrease inflammation early in the course of women’s treatment for breast cancer? We expect that women who show the greatest reductions in distress will also show the greatest reductions in inflammatory signaling and the greatest improvements in immune cell functioning over their first year of treatment.”

“We know stress management is effective in a 10-week program, and women who only attended half the sessions had the same benefits, so we are testing the idea that five weeks might be enough time,” he said. “The 10-week program also helped us focus on the most important things patients need to learn: being able to relax when needed and being able to cognitively process their emotions. We think we can achieve that in less than 10 weeks by using very focused interventions, and that will be more practical in a clinical setting.”

“Drs. Antoni and Blomberg’s project was evaluated and scored by a panel of both researchers and laypersons who are advocates for breast cancer research,” said Russell Silverman, executive director of the Florida Breast Cancer Foundation. “It was recommended to our committee with great enthusiasm, and we feel that this work will have a positive impact on the future of breast cancer treatment.”

Annette Gallagher can be reached at 305-284-1121.

 

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