Practicing positive activities may serve as an effective, low-cost treatment for people suffering from depression, according to researchers at the University of California, Riverside and Duke University Medical Center.
In “Delivering Happiness: Translating Positive Psychology Intervention Research for Treating Major and Minor Depressive Disorders,” a paper that appears in the August 2011 issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, the team of UCR and Duke psychology, neuroscience and psychopharmacology researchers proposed a new approach for treating depression – Positive Activity Interventions (PAI).
PAIs are intentional activities such as performing acts of kindness, practicing optimism, and counting one’s blessing gleaned from decades of research into how happy and unhappy people are different. This new approach has the potential to benefit depressed individuals who don’t respond to pharmacotherapy or are not able or willing to obtain treatment, is less expensive to administer, is relatively less time-consuming and promises to yield rapid improvement of mood symptoms, holds little to no stigma, and carries no side effects.
More than 16 million U.S. adults – about 8 percent of the population – suffer from either major or chronic depression. About 70 percent of reported cases either do not receive the recommended level of treatment or do not get treated at all, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that depression affects more than 100 million people.
Although antidepressants can be lifesaving for some individuals, initial drug therapy produces full benefits in only 30 percent to 40 percent of patients. Even after trying two to four different drugs, one-third of people will remain depressed.
The research team – Kristin Layous and Joseph Chancellor, graduate students at UC Riverside; Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology and director of the Positive Psychology Laboratory at UC Riverside; and Lihong Wang, M.D., and P. Murali Doraiswamy, M.B.B.S., FRCP, of Duke University – conducted a rigorous review of previous studies of PAIs, including randomized, controlled interventions with thousands of normal men and women as well as functional MRI scans in people with depressive symptoms.
“Over the last several decades, social psychology studies of flourishing individuals who are happy, optimistic and grateful have produced a lot of new information about the benefits of positive activity interventions on mood and well-being,” Lyubomirsky said.
However, such findings have not yet entered mainstream psychiatric practice.
“Very few psychiatrists collaborate with social scientists and no one in my field ever reads the journals where most happiness studies have been published. It was eye-opening for me as a psychopharmacologist to read this literature,” Doraiswamy said.
Lyubomirsky said that after she and Doraiswamy exchanged notes, “the obvious question that popped up was whether we can tap into the PAI research base to design interventions to galvanize clinically depressed people to move past the point of simply not feeling depressed to the point of flourishing.”
Although the paper found that positive activity interventions are effective in teaching individuals ways to increase their positive thinking, positive affect and positive behaviors, only two studies specifically tested these activities in individuals with mild depression.
In one of these studies, lasting improvements were found for six months. Effective PAIs used in the study included writing letters of gratitude, counting one’s blessings, practicing optimism, performing acts of kindness, meditating on positive feelings toward others, and using one’s signature strengths, all of which can be easily implemented into a daily routine at low cost.
People often underestimate the long-term impact of practicing brief, positive activities, Lyubomirsky said. For example, if a person gets 15 minutes of positive emotions from counting her blessings, she may muster the energy to attend the art class she’d long considered attending, and, while in class, might meet a friend who becomes a companion and confidant for years to come. In this way, even momentary positive feelings can build long-term social, psychological, intellectual, and physical skills and reserves.
The researchers’ review of brain imaging studies also led them to theorize that PAIs may act to boost the dampened reward/pleasure circuit mechanisms and reverse apathy – a key benefit that does not usually arise from treatment with medication alone.
“The positive activities themselves aren’t really new,” said Layous, the paper’s lead author. “After all, humans have been counting their blessings, dreaming optimistically, writing thank you notes, and doing acts of kindness for thousands of years. What’s new is the scientific rigor that researchers have applied to measuring benefits and understanding why they work.”
A major benefit of positive activities is that they are simple to practice and inexpensive to deliver.
“If we’re serious about tackling a problem as large as depression, we should be as concerned about the scalability of our solutions as much as their potency,” Chancellor said,
While PAIs appear to be a potentially promising therapy for mild forms of depression,” Doraiswamy cautioned, “they have not yet been fully studied in people with moderate to severe forms of depression. We need further studies before they can be applied to help such patients."
Kim Jobst, a physician and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine, said the review provides one location in which to reference all relevant PAI findings to date, and includes recommendations that should prove useful to researchers, clinicians and the public. The journal is devoted to publishing research about novel and unconventional treatment approaches.
Friday, July 29, 2011
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
A non-drug approach to enhance students' ability to learn
A random-assignment controlled study published today in Mind & Brain, The Journal of Psychiatry (Vol 2, No 1) found improved brain functioning and decreased symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, ADHD, in students practicing the Transcendental Meditation® (TM) technique. The paper, ADHD, Brain Functioning, and Transcendental Meditation Practice, is the second published study demonstrating TM's ability to help students with attention-related difficulties.
The first exploratory study, published in Current Issues in Education, followed a group of middle school students diagnosed with ADHD who meditated twice a day in school. After 3 months, researchers found over 50% reductions in stress, anxiety, and ADHD symptoms. During the study, a video was made of some students discussing what it felt like to have ADHD, and how those experiences changed after 3 months of regular TM practice.
In this second study, lead author, neuroscientist Fred Travis, PhD, director of the Center for Brain, Consciousness and Cognition, joined principal investigator Sarina J. Grosswald, EdD, a George Washington University-trained cognitive learning specialist, and co-researcher William Stixrud, PhD, a prominent Silver Spring, Maryland, clinical neuropsychologist, to investigate the effects of Transcendental Meditation practice on task performance and brain functioning in 18 ADHD students, ages 11-14 years.
The study was conducted over a period of 6 months in an independent school for children with language-based learning disabilities in Washington, DC. The study showed improved brain functioning, increased brain processing, and improved language-based skills among ADHD students practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique..
What was Measured
Students were pretested, randomly assigned to TM or delayed-start comparison groups, and post-tested at 3- and 6-months. Delayed-start students learned TM after the 3-month post-test.
EEG measurements of brain functioning were taken while students were performing a demanding computer-based visual-motor task. Successful performance on the task requires attention, focus, memory, and impulse control.
In addition, students were administered a verbal fluency test. This test measured higher-order executive functions, including initiation, simultaneous processing, and systematic retrieval of knowledge. Performance on this task depends on several fundamental cognitive components, including vocabulary knowledge, spelling, and attention.
Theta/Beta Power Ratios and ADHD
Using EEG measurements, the relationship of theta brain waves to beta brain waves can be diagnostic of ADHD. Dr. Joel Lubar of the University of Tennessee has demonstrated that the theta/beta ratio can very accurately identify students with ADHD from those without it.
While theta EEG around 4-5 Hz is commonly associated with daydreaming, drowsiness, and unfocused mental states, theta EEG around 6-8 Hz is seen when one focuses on inner mental tasks, such as memory processing, identifying, and associating.
"In normal individuals, theta activity in the brain during tasks suggests that the brain is blocking out irrelevant information so the person can focus on the task," said Dr. Travis. "But, in individuals with ADHD, the theta activity is even higher, suggesting that the brain is also blocking out relevant information."
And when beta activity, which is associated with focus, is lower than normal," Travis added, "it affects the ability to concentrate on task for extended periods of time.
"Prior research shows ADHD children have slower brain development and a reduced ability to cope with stress," said Dr. Stixrud. "Virtually everyone finds it difficult to pay attention, organize themselves and get things done when they're under stress," he explained. "Stress interferes with the ability to learn—it shuts down the brain. Functions such as attention, memory, organization, and integration are compromised."
Why the TM Technique
"We chose the TM technique for this study because studies show that it increases brain function. We wanted to know if it would have a similar effect in the case of ADHD, and if it did, would that also improve the symptoms of ADHD," said Dr. Grosswald.
Dr. Stixrud added, "Because stress significantly compromises attention and all of the key executive functions such as inhibition, working memory, organization, and mental flexibility, it made sense that a technique that can reduce a child's level of stress should also improve his or her cognitive functioning."
The Transcendental Meditation technique is an effortless, easy-to-learn practice, unique among categories of meditation. "TM does not require concentration, controlling the mind or disciplined focus—challenges for anyone with ADHD," Grosswald added.
There is substantial research showing the effectiveness of the TM technique for reducing stress and anxiety, and improving cognitive functioning among the general population. "What's significant about these new findings," Grosswald said, "is that among children who have difficulty with focus and attention, we see the same results. The fact that these children are able to do TM, and do it easily, shows us that this technique may be particularly well-suited for children with ADHD."
Transcendental Meditation produces an experience of restful alertness, which is associated with higher metabolic activity in the frontal and parietal parts of the brain, indicating alertness, along with decreased metabolic activity in the thalamus, which is involved in regulating arousal, and hyperactivity.
With regular practice, this restfully alert brain state, characteristic of the TM technique, becomes more present outside of meditation, allowing ADHD students to attend to tasks. "In a sense," Dr. Travis said, "the repeated experience of the Transcendental Meditation technique trains the brain to function in a style opposite to that of ADHD."
Improved Brain Functioning
During the practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique, coherence is found across different EEG frequencies. After meditation, the brain utilizes this increased functioning ability to support the performance of a task in an integrated manner.
Three months of TM practice resulted in significant decreases in theta/beta ratios and increased verbal fluency. This translates into improved executive function and more efficient cognitive processing.
During the first 3 months of the study, the theta/beta ratios of the control group (delayed start) actually increased. After learning, and practicing TM for 3 months, this group experienced dramatic decreases in theta/beta ratios and increased verbal fluency as well.
Student and Parent Surveys
Students reported that the TM technique was enjoyable and easy to do. They felt calmer, less stressed, and better able to concentrate on their schoolwork. They also said they were happier since they started TM. This correlated with reports from the parents.
At the end of the research, the parents completed a questionnaire to assess their perceptions of changes in five ADHD-related symptoms in their children from the beginning to the end of the study. There were positive and statistically significant improvements in the five areas measured: a) Ability to focus on schoolwork, b) Organizational abilities, c) Ability to work independently, d) Happiness, and e) Quality of sleep.
The combined results were significant. There was a 48% reduction in the theta/beta power ratios and a 30% increase in brain coherence after the 6-month period. Studies have shown that pharmaceuticals decrease theta/beta power ratios by 3%, and neurofeedback by 25%.
"These are very encouraging findings," said Dr. Stixrud. "Significant improvement in the theta/beta ratio without medication and without having to use any expensive equipment is a big deal, as is significant improvement in student happiness and student academic functioning reported by the parents."
"While stimulant medication is very beneficial for some of my clients with ADHD," Stixrud added, "the number of children who receive great benefit from medicine with minimal side-effects is relatively small. The fact that TM appears to improve attention and executive functions, and significantly reduces stress with no negative side-effects, is clearly very promising." Stixrud said he hoped these findings would lead to more research on the use of TM with children and adolescents.
In conclusion, these findings warrant additional research to assess the impact of Transcendental Meditation practice as a non-drug treatment for ADHD, and to track meditating students' improved academic achievements.
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
• Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—characterized by inattentiveness, impulsivity, and hyperactivity—is diagnosed in almost 10% of children ages 4-17 years, representing 5.4 million children.
• The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported among children with current ADHD, 66.3% were taking medication for the disorder. In total, 4.8% of all children ages 4-17 years (2.7 million) were taking medication for ADHD. The majority of them stay on it into adulthood.
• The rate of prescriptions for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in the U.S. has increased by a factor of five since 1991—with production of ADHD medicines up 2,000 percent in 9 years.
• The commonly used drugs for ADHD are stimulants (amphetamines). These drugs can cause persistent and negative side-effects, including sleep disturbances, reduced appetite, weight loss, suppressed growth, and mood disorders. The side-effects are frequently treated with additional medications to manage insomnia or mood swings. Almost none of the medications prescribed for insomnia or mood disturbances are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use with children.
• The long-term health effects of ADHD medications are not fully known, but evidence suggests risks of cardiac disorders and sudden death, liver damage and psychiatric events. It has also been found that children on long-term medication have significantly higher rates of delinquency, substance use, and stunted physical growth.
• A new study, Study raises questions about long-term effects of ADHD medication, the first of its kind, released February 17, 2010 by the Government of Western Australia's Department of Health, found that "long-term use of drugs such as Ritalin and dexamphetamine may not improve a child's social and emotional well-being or academic performance." The chair of the Ministerial Implementation Committee for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Western Australia said in the Department's press release, "We found that stimulant medication did not significantly improve a child's level of depression, self perception or social functioning and they were more likely to be performing below their age level at school by a factor of 10.5 times."