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Laughter Is the Best Medicine

While the author of the Book of Proverbs remains uncertain (most likely, King Solomon wrote it), its intent is not. The book was written to share insight, and much conventional wisdom originates in its pages. Proverbs 17:22, "a merrie heart doth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones," has transformed into the popular saying, "Laughter is the best medicine." It turns out that King Solomon, et al., were right: Laughing has medicinal applications.

Robin Dunbar, from Oxford University, led a team of researchers who evaluated laughter and its impact on pain perception in the lab and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In the lab, participants watched clips of South Park or The Simpsons before or after researchers exposed the subjects to painful experiences—either by tightening a blood pressure cuff on them or slipping a wine chiller on their arms. At the festival, before and after performances, participants stood against a wall with their legs bent at a 90-degree angle as if they were sitting in a chair until it became so painful they fell on the ground. (My pilates instructor makes us do this, but she calls it a workout.)

Previous research suggested that laughter dulls pain, and Dunbar found evidence that supports this claim.

Groups that either watched or participated in comedy felt less pain than their peers, who watched a documentary. And he found that people who laughed more had an even higher pain threshold than those who only let a few giggles escape. Chuckling with others also increased laughter's positive impact; people are 30 times more likely to laugh in a group than alone. Dunbar believes that laughing triggers endorphins—neurotransmitters produced by the pituitary gland and hypothalamus, which spark a feeling of comfort similar to what occurs when someone takes an opiate. Love, excitement, spicy foods, orgasms, exercise, and pain all cause the brain to produce endorphins, which also provide an analgesic effect.

Dunbar further examined the two types of laughter, Duchenne and non-Duchenne. Duchenne laughter is the type of natural chuckle that people experience when they see or hear something funny, which is often contagious. This giggling involves the contractions of the orbicularis oculi muscle (the muscle that enables the eyelids to close) and Dunbar suspects that this packs more pain relief than non-Duchenne laughter, which is emotionless and context-driven and does not involve any muscle activity. Duchenne laughter might be so effective because it involves muscle activity much like exercise or a massage, both of which release endorphins.

Dunbar writes:

"The capacity to sustain laughter for periods of several minutes at a time may exaggerate the opioid effects, thus ramping up the sense of heightened affect that humans experience in these contexts. A key aspect of this may be that social (or Duchenne) laughter is highly socially synchronized. In a study of physical exercise (rowing), synchronized activity ramped up endorphin production."

So next time you're in pain, try watching something funny and having a laugh. It might just help.
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Shown above: The Yue Minjun "Amazing Laughter" sculpture in Vancouver, BC, photographed by Flickr user Matthew Grapengeiser

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Women Suffer Worse Migraines Than Men. Now Scientists Think They Know Why
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Migraines are one of medicine's most frustrating mysteries, both causes and treatments. Now researchers believe they've solved one part of the puzzle: a protein affected by fluctuating estrogen levels may explain why more women suffer from migraines than men.

Migraines are the third most common illness in the world, affecting more than 1 in 10 people. Some 75 percent of sufferers are women, who also experience them more frequently and more intensely, and don't respond as well to drug treatments as men do.

At this year's Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, researcher Emily Galloway presented new findings on the connection between the protein NHE1 and the development of migraine headaches. NHE1 regulates the transfer of protons and sodium ions across cell membranes, including the membranes that separate incoming blood flow from the brain.

When NHE1 levels are low or the molecule isn't working as it's supposed to, migraine-level head pain can ensue. And because irregular NHE1 disrupts the flow of protons and sodium ions to the brain, medications like pain killers have trouble crossing the blood-brain barrier as well. This may explain why the condition is so hard to treat.

When the researchers analyzed NHE1 levels in the brains of male and female lab rats, the researchers found them to be four times higher in the males than in the females. Additionally, when estrogen levels were highest in the female specimens, NHE1 levels in the blood vessels of their brains were at their lowest.

Previous research had implicated fluctuating estrogen levels in migraines, but the mechanism behind it has remained elusive. The new finding could change the way migraines are studied and treated in the future, which is especially important considering that most migraine studies have focused on male animal subjects.

"Conducting research on the molecular mechanisms behind migraine is the first step in creating more targeted drugs to treat this condition, for men and women," Galloway said in a press statement. "Knowledge gained from this work could lead to relief for millions of those who suffer from migraines and identify individuals who may have better responses to specific therapies."

The new research is part of a broader effort to build a molecular map of the relationship between sex hormones and NHE1 expression. The next step is testing drugs that regulate these hormones to see how they affect NHE1 levels in the brain.

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The Surprising Link Between Language and Depression
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Skim through the poems of Sylvia Plath, the lyrics of Kurt Cobain, or posts on an internet forum dedicated to depression, and you'll probably start to see some commonalities. That's because there's a particular way that people with clinical depression communicate, whether they're speaking or writing, and psychologists believe they now understand the link between the two.

According to a recent study published in Clinical Psychological Science, there are certain "markers" in a person's parlance that may point to symptoms of clinical depression. Researchers used automated text analysis methods to comb through large quantities of posts in 63 internet forums with more than 6400 members, searching for certain words and phrases. They also noted average sentence length, grammatical patterns, and other factors.

What researchers found was that a person's use (or overuse) of first-person pronouns can provide some insight into the state of their mental health. People with clinical depression tend to use more first-person singular pronouns, such as "I" and "me," and fewer third-person pronouns, like "they," "he," or "she." As Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Reading and the head of the study, writes in a post for IFL Science:

"This pattern of pronoun use suggests people with depression are more focused on themselves, and less connected with others. Researchers have reported that pronouns are actually more reliable in identifying depression than negative emotion words."

What remains unclear, though, is whether people who are more focused on themselves tend to depression, or if depression turns a person's focus on themselves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people with depression also use more negative descriptors, like "lonely" and "miserable."

But, Al-Mosaiwi notes, it's hardly the most important clue when using language to assess clinical depression. Far better indicators, he says, are the presence of "absolutist words" in a person's speech or writing, such as "always," "constantly," and "completely." When overused, they tend to indicate that someone has a "black-and-white view of the world," Al-Mosaiwi says. An analysis of posts on different internet forums found that absolutist words were 50 percent more prevalent on anxiety and depression forums, and 80 percent more prevalent on suicidal ideation forums.

Researchers hope these types of classifications, supported by computerized methods, will prove more and more beneficial in a clinical setting.

[h/t IFL Science]

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