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Study Casts Doubt on Whether Seasonal Affective Disorder Is Real

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Though American psychiatrists now recognize Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as a subset of depression, it’s a fairly recent condition in medical history. The condition was first defined in 1984, and it’s still not accepted by all scientists. A new study in the journal Clinical Psychological Science suggests that while winter may be a literally dark time, it’s not an emotionally dark one.

Researchers from Auburn University at Montgomery asked 34,300 people of various ages to complete a questionnaire about their depression, where they lived, and other factors. Though a lack of sunlight is often cited as one of the reasons behind SAD (and is the reason people use those bright lamps to beat the winter blues, at least in theory), they found that overall depression levels did not fluctuate with the seasons or with changes in sunlight. People who lived at higher latitudes, who would see less sun during the winter, weren’t any more depressed than people who lived in the south.

“Merely being depressed during winter is not evidence that one is depressed because of winter,” the researchers write. “In clinical cases of recurrent depression, stressful life events associated with episodes may coincidentally co-occur with seasonal changes for some people.” It’s also possible that SAD exists, but at such low rates that this population sample didn’t reveal it.

"The idea of seasonal depression may be strongly rooted in folk psychology, but it is not supported by objective data," they conclude. "Consideration should be given to discontinuing seasonal variation as a diagnostic modifier of major depression."

Research on the Arctic town of Tromsø, Norway, where it’s dark for months at a time, indicates that wintertime woes could be about attitude. There, most residents don’t just ride out the winter; they actively enjoy it, emphasizing its coziness rather than its darkness.

However, that’s not to say your brain doesn’t change from season to season. Another new study, this one in PNAS, found that cognitive function varied throughout the year for 28 volunteers who underwent fMRI testing. However, the researchers found that this change in brain responses wasn’t related to the participants' self-reported moods.

[h/t Science of Us]

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New Patient Test Could Suggest Whether Therapy or Meds Will Work Better for Anxiety
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Like many psychological disorders, there's no one-size-fits-all treatment for patients with anxiety. Some might benefit from taking antidepressants, which boost mood-affecting brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Others might respond better to therapy, and particularly a form called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.

Figuring out which form of treatment works best often requires months of trial and error. But experts may have developed a quick clinical test to expedite this process, suggests a new study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have noted that patients with higher levels of anxiety exhibit more electrical activity in their brains when they make a mistake. They call this phenomenon error-related negativity, or ERN, and measure it using electroencephalography (EEG), a test that records the brain's electric signals.

“People with anxiety disorders tend to show an exaggerated neural response to their own mistakes,” the paper’s lead author, UIC psychiatrist Stephanie Gorka, said in a news release. “This is a biological internal alarm that tells you that you've made a mistake and that you should modify your behavior to prevent making the same mistake again. It is useful in helping people adapt, but for those with anxiety, this alarm is much, much louder.”

Gorka and her colleagues wanted to know whether individual differences in ERN could predict treatment outcomes, so they recruited 60 adult volunteers with various types of anxiety disorders. Also involved was a control group of 26 participants with no history of psychological disorders.

Psychiatrists gauged subjects’ baseline ERN levels by having them wear an EEG cap while performing tricky computer tasks. Ultimately, they all made mistakes thanks to the game's challenging nature. Then, randomized subjects with anxiety disorders were instructed to take an SSRI antidepressant every day for three months, or receive weekly cognitive behavioral therapy for the same duration. (Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of evidence-based talk therapy that forces patients to challenge maladaptive thoughts and develop coping mechanisms to modify their emotions and behavior.)

After three months, the study's patients took the same computer test while wearing EEG caps. Researchers found that those who'd exhibited higher ERN levels at the study's beginning had reduced anxiety levels if they'd been treated with CBT compared to those treated with medication. This might be because the structured form of therapy is all about changing behavior: Those with enhanced ERN might be more receptive to CBT than other patients, as they're already preoccupied with the way they act.

EEG equipment sounds high-tech, but it's relatively cheap and easy to access. Thanks to its availability, UIC psychiatrists think their anxiety test could easily be used in doctors’ offices to measure ERN before determining a course of treatment.

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New Study Shows It's Surprisingly Easy to Make People Have Auditory Hallucinations
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If you’ve ever heard something that wasn't there—an auditory hallucination—you know that the sound seems very, very real. A new study suggests that it's easy to induce auditory hallucinations in people, but it's even easier in people who already claim to hear things that aren't there. The research was published in the journal Science.

Co-author Al Powers is a psychiatric researcher at Yale. Speaking in a study, he said hallucinations “…may arise from an imbalance between our expectations about the environment and the information we get from our senses.”

In other words, he says, "You may perceive what you expect, not what your senses are telling you."

Powers and his colleagues recruited 59 people to help them test that hypothesis. There were four groups of participants: people who heard voices and had been diagnosed with psychosis; people who had been diagnosed with psychosis but didn’t hear voices; people who heard voices but had not been diagnosed with any mental illness (we'll come back to that in a moment); and people who just plain didn't hear voices.

The third group was an unusual one: 15 self-professed psychics. These participants said that they heard voices every day, but unlike people in the first group—those diagnosed with psychosis who heard voices—they weren't bothered by the voices they claimed to hear. In fact, they took them to be communications from supernatural forces or entities.

All the participants then underwent brain scans. While they were in the scanner, the researchers used a combination of sounds and images to trick their brains into producing auditory hallucinations. First, participants were shown a checkerboard and played a sound. Then they were told to listen for the sound. Sometimes it played when the checkerboard appeared. Sometimes it didn't play at all, but the checkerboard showed, which led their brains to expect the sound would be played.

Members of all four groups experienced the hallucinations, hearing noises even in the silence. Their brain scans showed that they really were "hearing" the nonexistent sounds.

Unsurprisingly, the two groups of hallucination-prone people were more susceptible to hearing things. But when they were told that there had in fact been no sound, people with psychosis were less likely to believe it. 

The authors say this difference could potentially help doctors spot, diagnose, and treat psychosis in their patients before it becomes severe.

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