Some researchers hope that focusing on the cognitive, neural, genetic and social processes that contribute to symptom dimensions – like anxiety-depression or social withdrawal – may be more fruitful than trying to understand the causes of different diagnostic categories, like “schizophrenia” or “major depression”. It’s in this vein that a new paper in Biological Psychiatry has used a simple perceptual task to investigate how judgment confidence, judgment accuracy and metacognition (judgment insight) are related to various trans-diagnostic symptom dimensions in the general public.
“Conferences on psychedelics are popping up everywhere, like mushrooms!” said Jakobien van der Weijden, of the Psychedelic Society of the Netherlands, when I met her in Amsterdam last week. Indeed, research into the use of psychedelic (mind-altering) drugs as tools in the treatment of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and end-of-life angst, is on the increase. Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, may help to alleviate symptoms of depression by altering brain activity in key areas involved in emotional processing, for example.
Now a study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, led by Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins University, has found that for mentally and physically healthy volunteers, two doses of psilocybin in conjunction with a programme of meditation and other “spiritual” practices was enough to bring about lasting, positive changes to traits including altruism, gratitude, forgiveness and feeling close to others.
New research on gender identity disorder (also known as gender dysphoria, in which a person does not identify with their biological sex) questions how best to handle the condition when it arises in children and adolescents. Should biological treatments be used as early as possible to help a young client transition, or is caution required, in case of complicating psychological issues?
Melanie Bechard of the University of Toronto and her colleagues examined the prevalence of “psychosocial and psychological vulnerabilities” in 50 child and teen cases of gender dysphoria, and writing in a recent issue of the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, they argue their findings show that physicians should be considering these factors more seriously when deciding on a treatment plan. Salting the situation, one of the paper’s co-authors is Kenneth Zucker, an expert on gender dysphoria who was last year considered too controversial for Canadian state television.
There’s a stereotype that mental distress is an almost inevitable part of being highly creative. But is there any substance to this idea, or have we been misled – by biographers drawn to artists with colourful and chaotic lives, and the conceits of cultural movements like the romantics?
Scientific attempts to resolve this question, which have mainly focused on disorders of mood, have so far struggled to reach a definitive answer. However, in a new review in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Christa Taylor of Albany State University has applied surgical precision to open up the existing body of research and lay out what we currently know.
At the heart of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are the intrusive, often distressing, thoughts. My skin is dirty… I must have left the gas on and my house will burn down… But why do some obsessive thoughts compel the person to act on them, while others don’t? And how are some people with OCD able to control the compulsion to act – to repeatedly wash their hands, or to go home to check appliances, for example – while others can’t?
As the authors of a new study on OCD, published in Clinical Psychological Psychotherapy, point out: “A single negative intrusive thought may result in an avalanche of compulsive behaviour, whereas even hours of intrusive thought may prompt little or no compulsive behaviour in some individuals.”
Distressing conditions including PTSD, depression and anxiety have something in common: a difficulty in suppressing unwanted thoughts. Negative self-judgments and re-experienced traumas directly impact mental health and make recovery harder by intruding into the new experiences that should provide distance and a mental fresh start. Understanding what’s involved in thought suppression may therefore be one key to helping people with these conditions. Now research in Nature Communications has uncovered an important new brain process that may help explain why some people struggle to control their thoughts.
Despite the continued use of ECT, and its apparent benefits, exactly how it works remains largely unexplained. However, new clues come from a Chinese study, published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, in which patients showed increased grey matter volume in the amygdala, a brain structure involved in emotional processing.
Although psychotherapy is effective for many people, it doesn’t help everyone. In fact, in some cases it can do more harm than good. And while clinical researchers publish many studies into the outcomes of different therapeutic approaches, such as CBT or psychoanalytic psychotherapy, we actually know relatively little about the specific therapist behaviours that clients find beneficial or unwelcome.
A new study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, although it involves only a small sample, has broken new ground by asking clients to provide detailed feedback on a second-by-second basis of their experience of a recent therapy session, and to explain their perspective on what took place. Intriguingly, the very same therapist behaviours were sometimes identified as helpful and at other times as a hindrance, showing just what a challenge it is to be a therapist.
“It is important to recognise that all therapists are going to make mistakes,” write Joshua Swift at Idaho State University, and his colleagues. “Perhaps the success of the session does not depend on whether errors are made but on the frequency of mistakes and how quickly therapists are able to repair them.”
After a traumatic experience, why do some people develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), while others don’t? Work to date has found evidence that various factors play a role, including a lack of social support and low levels of the neurotransmitter neuropeptide Y (due to its role in the body’s stress response). Into this mix come new findings, reported in Psychosomatic Medicine, that an individual’s complement of gut bacteria (their gut microbiome) may contribute to their vulnerability to trauma. The researchers are now investigating whether tweaking the gut microbiome could help to prevent or treat PTSD.
There are many effective psychological therapies to help teenagers with depression, anxiety or other mental health problems. Unfortunately, for various reasons, most teenagers never get access to a professional therapist. To overcome this problem, some researchers are exploring the potential of brief, “single-session” interventions that can be delivered cheaply and easily to many at-risk teenagers outside of a clinical context. In The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Jessica Schleider and John Weisz at Harvard University present extremely promising results from their trial of a 30-minute computer session teaching depressed and anxious teenagers that personality is malleable.