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Researchers Receive $3.5 Million to Improve Students’ Classroom Behaviors, Study Connection to Academic Performance

Aug. 26, 2015 Jesslyn Chew COLUMBIA, Mo. – Measuring the academic performance of students has remained a top public priority over the last decade. More recently, public attention increasingly has focused on the social and emotional health of students and how those factors contribute to academic success. In order to continue to find ways to support the mental health and well-being of students, University of Missouri researchers have received nearly $3.5 million from the U.S. Department of Education over four years to evaluate an intervention that promotes social and emotional skills for students who exhibit challenging classroom behaviors. The intervention, Self-Monitoring Training and Regulation Strategy (STARS), is a self-management and mindfulness skills program for fifth-grade students who regularly display disruptive and challenging behaviors in the classroom. “Over the last decade, researchers and policymakers have prioritized academic achievement, and that is reflected in our testing procedures and endorsed in legislation like No Child Left Behind and policies like Race to the Top,” said Aaron Thompson, an assistant professor in the MU School of Social Work and principal investigator on the grant. “As a result, the social-emotional development of students has taken a backseat to academic press. Academic performance and social-emotional development cannot be separated. Kids who present behavior problems often have academic problems, and kids who have academic problems often present behavior problems. We need to attend to both the academic and social-emotional development of students if we are to help them succeed in school and life beyond.” Thompson developed STARS based on his experiences as a school social worker and principal at a school for emotionally disturbed children. He later tested the program in public schools and found participating students experienced improved classroom behavior, relationships [...]

St. Louis startup makes a Fitbit for stress relief

Aug 25, 2015, 11:07am CDT By Jim Bafaro Feeling stressed out? A group of St. Louis entrepreneurs wants to help you. From their office in the Cortex district of mid-town St. Louis, a team of developers from Data Dog Health Inc., is creating an app to monitor your stress level via a wristband, much like the popular Fitbit technology that measures your heart rate from the pulse on your wrist. The inspiration for the product, called Mindset, said Data Dog co-founder and CEO Elizabeth Russell, came in 2013. “I met my co-founder, Ravi Chacko, at a bioengineering design conference in Seattle, where we wound up placing in a pitch competition,” she said. “We began working together and decided to tackle the issue of access to mental health care. And this is where we found our niche — realizing that anyone who has stress or anxiety could benefit from a digital interaction such as we’ll provide.” Mindset features both a hardware and software component. “For the hardware, think of what you think of with Fitbit. We pair with any third-party wearable device that measures heart rate and has a Bluetooth Low Energy connection,” she said. “Just as Fitbit monitors activity as a way to gauge your physical fitness level, we are gauging your stress level via heart rate as a measure of mental health.” As the wearable device detects increased heart rate, and thus determines the wearer is becoming stressed, it will deliver that message to an app downloaded on the user’s smart phone. “The app will tell the wearer, ‘Hey, this might be a good moment to be aware that you are becoming stressed out,’” Russell said. Other options available include a series of recordings [...]

Exploring the brain’s role in stress-induced anxiety​​​

July 23, 2015 By Jim Dryden BRUCHAS LABORATORY Neurons in the mouse brain appear green as they produce a substance that makes them sensitive to light. The red marks the presence of norepinephrine, which surges under stress. Calming a neural circuit in the brain can alleviate stress in mice, according to new research that could lay the foundation for understanding stress and anxiety in people. Using cutting-edge techniques, the researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis also showed they could shine a light into the brain to activate the stress response in mice that had not been exposed to stressful situations. The study is published online July 23 in the journal Neuron. “We now have a much better idea of the neural circuit involved in producing anxiety following stress,” said first author Jordan G. McCall, PhD, a former graduate student in the laboratory of principal investigator Michael R. Bruchas, PhD, associate professor of anesthesiology and neurobiology. “You can imagine that this same response also may be important to longer-term stress-related problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or anxiety disorder.” The work may lead to the development of new treatments for such disorders, as well as for depression and alcohol and drug abuse. Neuroscientists already knew that a small structure in the brain called the locus coeruleus (LC) plays a key role in stress and anxiety. Neurons in that region secrete the hormone norepinephrine, which surges when a person is under stress. But using techniques called optogenetics and chemogenetics, the researchers showed they could selectively control the firing of LC neurons, lower norepinephrine levels and prevent the anxiety that normally follows stressful events. In these techniques, researchers genetically engineer mice with brain cells [...]

Disrupted REM Sleep Can Rewire Young Brains

7/22/15 Cynthia Fox, Science Writer Kittens with eye patches deprived of non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep do not end up with impaired connections in a visual center of the brain. But kittens deprived of REM sleep do. This is according to a new Science Advances studythat “adds important new data to our understanding of how the complicated state of REM functions in early life,” University of Mississippi associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior James Shaffery, D.Phil., told Bioscience Technology. Shaffery was not involved in the new study. “I was surprised how important REM sleep turned out to be,” senior author Marcos Frank, Ph.D., told Bioscience Technology. Frank is a Washington State University neuroscientist. “I thought other stages of sleep would be key, but I was wrong.  Happily wrong.” The above, with the study’s second finding —that key memories can fail to form in REM-deprived developing brains—indicates that drugs given to children, from antidepressants to stimulants, may need to be intensely analyzed for impact on REM. REM’s biological function Since its discovery as “a third state of being sixty-plus years ago, the biological function of the REM sleep state has remained a bit of a mystery,” Shaffery told Bioscience Technology. Shaffery has extensively studied REM. In the last two decades, understanding has accelerated. “Studies in humans, cats and rats have lent support to the role of the REM sleep state serving important functions in certain forms of memory consolidation and in brain development.” Frank Marcos, Ph.D. of Washington State UniversityEarly work unexpectedly unearthed the fact that human neonates undergo far more REM sleep than adults. “This observation formed the basis of the Ontogenetic Hypothesis of the function of REM sleep that has generated a considerable [...]

Director’s Blog: Early BRAIN Breakthroughs

By Thomas Insel, NIMH Director, June 22, 2015 I don’t usually keep count of scientific breakthroughs, but right now we are on a streak of findings from the BRAIN Initiative that, if my count is correct, looks like one a week for the past five weeks. BRAIN is the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative. This is the public and private effort, first announced by President Obama in April 2013, to develop the next generation of tools to understand the brain. New tools should reveal not only a new understanding of the brain, but new approaches to brain disorders and ultimately new treatments. One of the early goals of the BRAIN Initiative is a “parts list” for the brain. While we have a pretty good idea of the various cell types in most organs, for the brain we still lack a comprehensive list of the kinds of cells and how many of each kind of cell should be present. This is a surprisingly hard problem, partly because of the sheer numbers and diversity of cell types in the human brain. In mid-May, Evan Macosko and his colleagues at Harvard and MIT reported on Drop-seq, a new technique for single cell analysis.1 Drop-seq is a high throughput system for identifying cell types by the genes they express using bar-coded beads in microscopic droplets. The system is fast (processing 10,000 cells in 12 hours) and inexpensive (less than 7 cents per cell). As a test case, the team studied over 44,000 cells in the mouse retina and identified 39 cell types, consistent with previous reports using far more labor- intensive methods. Another goal of the BRAIN Initiative is to move from correlational studies to causal or mechanistic studies of [...]

Scientists Find Growth Factors That Build Brains also Build Memories

Mon, 06/08/2015 - 12:05pm - by New York University A team of New York University neuroscientists has determined how a pair of growth factor molecules contributes to long-term memory formation, a finding that appears in the journal Neuron. “These results give us a better understanding of memory’s architecture and, specifically, how molecules act as a network in creating long-term memories,” explains the paper’s senior author, Thomas Carew, a professor in NYU’s Center for Neural Science and dean of NYU’s Faculty of Arts and Science. “More importantly, this marks another step toward elucidating the intricacies of memory function, which is vital in the development of cognitive therapies to address related afflictions.” The importance of growth factor molecules (GFs) has long been known. They are critical in building brains beginning in utero and until adulthood. Moreover, over time, it’s been established that GFs are “recycled” from brain builders to engineers of long-term memories. Less clear, however, is how the wide range of GF families, as well as different members within each family, act to help us create these memories. In working to address this question, the NYU research team, which also included graduate student Ashley Kopec, the study’s lead author, and research scientist Gary Philips, focused on two GF families: TrkB and TGFβr-II, which represent two distinct classes of GFs that utilize different types of receptors to exert their actions in the brain. In their study, the researchers examined GFs in Aplysia californica, the California sea slug. Aplysia is a model organism that is quite powerful for this type of research because its neurons are 10 to 50 times larger than those of higher organisms, such as vertebrates, and it possesses a relatively small network of neurons—characteristics that readily [...]

New NIMH strategic plan aims to focus, accelerate mental health research

Thursday, March 26, 2015 National Institute of Mental Health plan will help guide funding Against a backdrop of rapid scientific advances and dramatic changes in the landscape of mental health care, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has issued a new Strategic Plan for Research. Informed by the successes and challenges of recent years, the new plan updates the strategic objectives of its 2008 predecessor with the aim of balancing the need for long-term investments in basic research with urgent mental health needs. NIMH Strategic Plan for Research “A strategic plan can identify the most important problems and identify areas of traction,” said NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel, M.D. “This update of our strategic plan is a commitment to take a fresh look at our horizons so that we can refine priorities and energize our path of discovery.” According to recent estimates mental illnesses account for 21.3 percent of all years lived with disability in the United States. An estimated 9.6 million American adults suffer from a serious mental illness in which the ability to function in daily life is significantly impaired. Furthermore, over 41,000 Americans died in 2013 from suicide, more than twice the annual mortality from homicide or AIDS. Changing these statistics depends not only on continued effort in areas in which there have been dramatic advances, but in less fully explored areas, such as the mechanisms by which environmental influences alter brain and behavior, as well as in research to improve and broaden access to health care services. To go forward, the plan has revised the original four high-level strategic objectives as follows: Define the mechanisms of complex behaviors. Chart mental illness trajectories to determine when, where, and how to intervene. [...]

Texas A&M Study Shows Memory Decline Caused by Aging can be Prevented with Resveratrol

Feb. 5, 2015 BioNewsTexas Researchers recently published in the journal Scientific Reports their findings on resveratrol, a compound present in foods such as peanuts and red grapes, and how it may offer protection towards memory decline caused by aging. The study is entitled “Resveratrol Prevents Age-Related Memory and Mood Dysfunction with Increased Hippocampal Neurogenesis and Microvasculature, and Reduced Glial Activation.” Resveratrol is a natural phenol produced by several plants. It can be found in the skin of red grapes and in red wine, in blueberries, raspberries and also in peanuts. Resveratrol is thought to have antioxidant properties and has gained attention due to its reported antiaging, angiogenic, anti-inflammatory and disease-fighting benefits. The research team led by Dr. Ashok K. Shetty from the Texas A&M Health Science Center studied the effects of resveratrol on the hippocampus, a region of the brain crucial for learning, memory and mood functions. Researchers found that resveratrol treatment for four weeks in aged rats seemed to improve their learning and memory aptitudes as well as their mood. “The results of the study were striking,” stated Dr. Shetty in anews release. “They indicated that for the control rats who did not receive resveratrol, spatial learning ability was largely maintained but ability to make new spatial memories significantly declined between 22 and 25 months. By contrast, both spatial learning and memory improved in the resveratrol-treated rats.” Aging is known to be associated with a diminished hippocampal neurogenesis, which refers to the growth and development of neurons. The team found that neurogenesis in rats given resveratrol approximately duplicated in comparison with control rats. Rats treated with resveratrol also exhibited a significant improvement in terms of microvasculature and blood flow, and a reduction of chronic [...]

Scientists Confirm ‘Chemobrain’ Is Real, Patients Find Validation

St. Louis Public Radio, by Nora Ibrahim ~ June 5, 2014 Most people have heard about the undesirable side effects that chemotherapy has on the body of people suffering from cancer. There's balding, fatigue and loss of appetite, to name a few. Until recently, however, chemotherapy’s effects on the brain weren’t widely recognized. The cognitive side effects – a fuzzy memory and poor attention span – were usually dismissed by physicians, scientists and even some cancer patients. The symptoms have a name: Post-chemotherapy cognitive impairment, or “chemobrain,” among those who suffer from it. Many describe the phenomenon as a “mental fog” that persists even after the chemotherapy has ended. They liken it to those moments when you forget what was on your grocery list or where you put your keys. But for some patients who have received chemotherapy, these memory lapses happen all of the time. Scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine now believe the cognitive effects of chemotherapy are not just anecdotal: Chemobrain can be seen via brain imaging. Dr. Bradley Schlaggar, a pediatric neurologist at the school of medicine, is one of the co-investigators of the pilot study that shows evidence for chemobrain. He and some colleagues began the study with a group of 28 women who underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer. Half of the group reported signs of cognitive issues and the other half none at all. Schlagger was already interested in studying the chemobrain phenomenon when an odd thing happened. His wife, Christina Lessov-Schlaggar, was receiving chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer in 2012 when she started experiencing chemobrain. Lessov-Schlagger is also a neuroscientist at Washington University. 'When I was first starting to feel my brain going coo-coo, we stumbled [...]

Blunt calls for improved mental health services

Southeast Missourian, By Samantha Rinehart ~ May 29, 2014 U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt stood before community leaders, counselors and board members at the Community Counseling Center in Cape Girardeau on Wednesday afternoon advocating for improved behavioral health treatment. The event came on the eve of the center's 40th anniversary, said executive director John Hudak, who hailed the senator's visit as an opportunity to look at the future of mental-health services at a time when the center is celebrating the strides it has taken in the past. Hudak also noted that should the center still provide services to the public in another 40 years, it will be in no small part because of the Excellence in Mental Health Act, sponsored by Blunt and Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow. The legislation, signed into law by the president in April, is expected to expand access to community mental-health services, and strengthen the quality of care provided for people living with mental illnesses. It also will provide federal funding for pilot programs in eight states that will be selected to help improve mental-health centers, and Blunt said he is hoping Missouri will be among that number. He said he believes now is the perfect time to advocate for improved behavioral health treatment. Blunt said he's been interested in the issue for many years, but recent events encouraged him to take action. Too many tragedies have taken place because of untreated mental-health issues, he said, referring to incidents such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School and Fort Hood shootings. When the U.S. Senate committee that deals with mental-health issues met in January 2013, a month after Sandy Hook, for the first time since 2007, Blunt said it was obvious changes needed [...]