October 2009

Hazardous drivingHere’s a study that explains a lot: Almost a third of all drivers in the U.S. have a gene that may predispose them to bad driving habits.

A neuroscientist at the University of California – Irvine says drivers with the gene performed 20 percent worse on a driving test, and fell 30 percent short on a second go around.

About 30 percent of Americans have the gene, according to Steven Cramer, who studies brain repair after stroke and brain remodeling.

This gene controls a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which supports communication between brain cells during physical activities. In people who have a certain variant of the gene, a smaller portion of their brain is stimulated when they’re involved in a particular task.

So Cramer and his colleagues decided to compare people with and without this variant on a driving simulator.

Graduate student Stephanie McHughen explains: “We wanted to study motor behavior, something more complex than finger-tapping. Driving seemed like a good choice because it has a learning curve and it’s something most people know how to do.”

Twenty-nine drivers took test – 22 without the gene and seven with it. They all repeated the test four days later, with the results described above.

Even Cramer wasn’t actually expecting that kind of gap. “Behavior derives from dozens and dozens of neurophysiologic events, so it’s somewhat surprising this exercise bore fruit,” he said.

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My post on the clown cell phone study struck a chord with readers. Several people told their own stories on Reddit.com. I found one particularly interesting:

“One time when my call got picked up, I was on a red light. Somehow my brain interpreted the pick-up as a green light. Almost caused a disaster. Turn the damn thing off ever since while driving, it’s worse than being drunk.”

Makes sense. You’re at a red light and punch in a number on the phone, totally focused on making the call. Someone picks up. The traffic light says stop – but your brain says go-go-go!

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/2750711244/

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ElectioniPolitics is a many splendored thing. There’s more than one thread woven into a political position. Family background, personal experience, income, a person’s profession – these all influence where we stand on the issues.

But once you’ve chosen your side, politics becomes suspiciously like that other great American pastime: sports.

A study at Duke University suggests that hormone levels fluctuate among male voters, depending on who wins and who loses. It’s apparently the same biological jolt men get after being pumped up for a big football game, only to see their team blow a touchdown lead in the final seconds.

Duke researchers used saliva tests to check male and female testosterone levels the night of the 2008 election. In groups of volunteers, they measured them as the poles closed and then again after the results were in. Women produce far less testosterone, and their levels were not affected.

But Duke found that hormone levels plunged among male voters who were suffering from the John McCain loss. There were stable readings among male Obama voters – even though an evening reduction is normal – leading researchers to conclude that the male Obama voters actually ended up with higher than expected testosterone levels.

“Voters participate in elections both directly by casting their ballots, and vicariously because they don’t personally win or lose the election,” says Duke post-doctoral researcher Steven Stanton, who is the first author on a paper published October 22 in PLOS. “This makes democratic political elections highly unique dominance contests.”

In a follow-up questionnaire, McCain voters – and backers of Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr – said they felt more unhappy, submissive, unpleasant and controlled than the Obama voters.

“This is a pretty powerful result,” says neuroscientist Kevin LaBar. “Voters are physiologically affected by having their candidate win or lose an election.”

The study raises another issue. How much reasoned debate can actually take place in the final weeks of an election if both sides are so emotionally tied to their “teams?” No wonder contests often deteriorate into a barrage of bitter personal attacks.

My first job out of college as a reporter, I got called into the managing editor’s office. I’d mostly covered education, but he wanted me on the local congressional race. I said fine, but I’d never covered politics before.

“Easy,” he said. “Just cover it like sports.”

That election turned into a real horse race.

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Clown on unicycle WWUAs I reported on October 6, President Obama issued an executive order prohibiting federal employees from texting while driving. But that won’t cause much of a ripple in the vast sea of cell phone users focused on inane communication at the expense of public safety.

It seems some people believe that staying in your lane, stopping at red lights, and not running over pedestrians is secondary to making sure your teenager takes a package of chicken thighs out of the freezer.

Now here’s further evidence that cell phone use isolates people from society in other ways as well – it wraps them up in their own little cocoon of one-on-one communication, practically oblivious to what’s going on around them.

Ira Hyman, a professor of psychology at Western Washington University in Bellingham, put a clown on a unicycle and asked him to ride around campus. He then analyzed the reactions of students to find out who noticed the clown and who didn’t.

He found out that only 25 percent of students talking on their cell had noticed the clown, while more than half of students listening to iPods saw him. About 70 percent of those walking in pairs and chatting with friends took note of the unusual scene.

“If people experience so much difficulty performing the task of walking when on a cell phone, just think of what this means when put into the context of driving safety,” Hyman says. “People should not drive while talking on a cell phone.

“Cell phone use causes people to be oblivious to their surroundings while engaged in even a simple task such as walking. Cell phone users walk more slowly, change directions and weave more often and fail to notice interesting and novel objects.

“The effect appears to be caused by the distraction of a cell phone conversation, because people walking in pairs did not display the same range of problems.”

Details of the study will appear in the December issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology.

For more information and statistics on texting and driving, see my May 21 post, Sir, have you been texting tonight?

Photo: Western Washington University

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Earth picWho says you have to be well grounded? Astronauts are just about the happiest people on … or OFF … the planet, a psychiatrist says.

And it’s not just because they’ve achieved a lifelong dream, although that could be part of the reason why they’re so upbeat. There are actually a number of different psychological factors at work, says Nick Kanas, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

“In spite of the pressure and dangers they face in their work, they are having a ball,” says Kanas, who has done numerous psychological projects for the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA).

He was interviewed in last Friday’s Psychiatric News about his interest in the psychological aspects of space travel. His current topic: isolation. NASA needs information on human reaction to isolation as it plans a manned trip to Mars, now on the drawing board for the 2030s.

Obviously, astronauts feel isolated in the International Space Station, but what would happen if they were on the surface of the Red Planet – and it took 44 minutes for each communication to reach Earth? What happens when the lack of immediate feedback eliminates the possibility of conversation as we know it?

Kanas, a longtime space enthusiast, has spent decades studying issues like distress and group cohesion among astronauts and Arctic explorers.

He’s also a sci-fi buff, by the way.

Now, about astronauts’ exceptional happiness: Kanas found through research that people in Mission Control are happier than Americans as a whole – but not as happy as the astronauts in the program.

One reason is that NASA tends to pick the fittest candidates for space travel. That means being physically fit, but also mentally well adjusted. A common thread that runs through the psychological makeup of astronauts is that they see the world in a positive light.

But the third factor makes the most sense to me: Looking at the Earth from space, you get an overall view of its beauty – minus the problems. It may trigger a philosophical reaction that encourages space travelers to think about the greater good.

“in some cases, when they returned, it affected their desire to improve things and get involved in helping other people,” Kanas says.

Space travel in the past has been inspirational. It’s another good reason to look forward to a rebirth of manned projects.

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Chronic fatigueThere was a time when chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) was thought to have its roots in mental illness. Previous studies have shown that depression more often precedes the onset of CFS, rather than follows it.

But when it hits, it hits hard. CFS can lead to fatigue, memory loss, and problems concentrating. It can also cause muscle and joint pain, headaches and soar throats.

These days, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) still officially refers to CFS as a result of other underlying illnesses, rather than a diagnosis in and of itself.

But now a new study has identified a virus that may actually cause the problem, which affects as many as 4 million Americans who tend to be women age 40 and up. Worldwide, there may be 17 million cases.

If you check the current CDC Web site, you’ll find the official position is that 40 percent actually are suffering from undiagnosed diabetes, thyroid condition or substance abuse. But since the CDC acknowledges that only half of CFS sufferers see a doctor, that’s obviously an estimate.

The new study, published in last week’s issue of the journal Science, contends that a virus known as XMRV – xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus – may be responsible, not only for CFS but for other illnesses as well, such as prostate cancer. It’s a retrovirus, in the same class as that which causes AIDS.

Researchers say they found the infectious virus in 68 of 101 CFS patients they studied – or 67 percent. On follow-up, they found that 98 percent of 300 CFS patients had the virus.

While admitting that they still haven’t found the smoking gun that links the virus directly to CFS, they note that only 3.7 percent of healthy subjects were carrying XMRV.

The particularly good news about the discovery is that CFS may actually be treatable with antiretroviral drugs. Plans to test the drugs – some that are used to treat HIV infection – are now on the drawing board.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bolshakov/2975747955/

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FriesHere’s a new diet plate that may be coming soon to your local fast food joint: chicken nuggets, large fry, fish fillet and – let’s go for it – a large chocolate shake.

Well, maybe not the chocolate shake. But a new fryer invented by a food scientist at Purdue University in Indiana can apparently make food taste like it’s been deep fried without a drop of extra oil.

Called a “radiant fryer,” it uses “wavelengths of radiant energy” to finish food that’s already been pre-fried, as most items are when they arrive at places like McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s. The inventor, Kevin Keener, says the fryer – it’s more like an oven, really – would cut 50 percent of the fat out of a fried product.

And, he says, it will taste identical to the fully fried food Americans have always found so irresistible.

The cooking method was demonstrated last week on the Purdue campus. Keener cooked hash browns and chicken patties using both the new oven and a traditional oil bath, then handed out samples to students.

“When you put the product from our oven next to one that’s been traditionally fried, you won’t be able to tell the difference,” Keener says.

Keener’s co-inventor is Brian Farkas, a food scientist at North Carolina State University. The prototype was built by Indiana-based Anderson Tool and Engineering Co.

Here’s a YouTube video of Keener talking about the process. And some video of the demonstration project, as well as what students had to say about it.

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Flu suitWhile we’re on the subject of inventions, a Japanese company is marketing a business suit that reportedly protects the wearer from the H1N1 flu virus.

For $580, you get a “smart suit” that looks identical in every way to classy business apparel. The only difference is it has been treated with titanium dioxide, which in combination with light deals a death blow to the swine flu bug. Or so they say.

So you can go out, make your deal, shake hands on it, and go back home comforted by the knowledge that you won’t be infecting the wife, kids, dog – or even your Vietnamese pot-bellied pig.

The chemical that wards off the virus, incidentally, is the same one added to toothpaste. Sounds harmless enough, doesn’t it? Since they expect a busy season, Haruyama Trading Co. has produced 50,000 of these wonder suits so far.

My bet is that they catch on big on Wall Street this fall and winter. Finally … intelligent attire for the well-dressed germaphobe.

Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/seandreilinger/777292601/; Haruyama Trading Co. release.

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greenlandCan psychologists help get Americans charged up about battling climate change? That’s one of the questions asked at the recent American Psychological Association (APA) convention in Toronto.

It seems that a big majority of Americans (80 percent) profess to care about climate change, and the impact it may have on future generations. But when it comes to identifying problems that demand action, climate change is way, way down on the list.

The goal of psychologists, according to the October issue of the APA Monitor on Psychology, is to “weave behavioral research into environmental laws and regulations to make them more effective.”

When all is said and done, dirtying up the atmosphere with CO2 and other global warming emissions is a behavioral problem. So, how do you get people to change their habits?

Well, it seems people aren’t apt to alter their behavior without immediate rewards. So the answer should be no big surprise: Cash on the barrel head.

According to the APA, psychologists are “already working” to overcome psychological barriers to climate friendly practices. “For example, people are more likely to use energy-efficient appliances if they are provided with immediate energy-use feedback. Devices that show people how much energy and money they’re conserving can yield energy savings of 5 percent to 12 percent, according to research.”

Some may find it surprising that the APA would plunge into a controversial political topic. Actually, this is standard fare for the organization, which has debated several hot button issues recently, including the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo.

That’s a controversy that tore at the soul of the organization – when I attended the 2008 convention in Boston it was going full-throttle, with picketers and petitioners outside the convention center demanding that the APA halt its support of military interrogation methods at the prison camp. The topic remains a sore spot to this day.

Psychologists apparently feel that climate change is safer territory, something most members can support. Plus, why not carve out a role for behavioral science in an issue that promises to be big business in the future? No question that going green can bring in the green.

Still, U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, a clinical psychologist from Washington State who’s pressing for a role for psychologists in environmental legislation, told The Monitor that it’s been an uphill battle.

“We’re getting quite an extraordinary backlash from people who, on the one hand, have said that psychology has nothing to contribute because everybody knows what they’re supposed to do anyway, and then turn right around and have said that it’s tantamount to mind control propaganda.”

He added that psychology’s contribution will have to be “ruthlessly practical. We have to put forth things that are real with real numbers and real consequences.”

In other words, pocket book issues. Step aside, Dr. Phil.

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TextingYou thought Washington was consumed by health care reform, the war in Afghanistan, and the 2016 Summer Olympics. While all of this was going on, Obama administration officials managed to squeeze in a Distracted Driving Summit.

The end game was a presidential order issued last week prohibiting federal employees from texting while driving. It affects 4.5 million employees, including postal workers and military personnel.

“This order sends a very clear signal to the American public that distracted driving is dangerous and unacceptable,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement issued at the summit.

“I fully expect that all 58,000 DOT employees and contractors will take this order seriously. Let’s show our friends and families that we can resist the temptation to answer the phone, send a message, or allow some other distraction to interfere with our driving.”

Texting while driving makes a driver 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash, or “near crash event,” according to a recent study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. The study showed that all cell phone use was risky, even just talking on the phone.

I’m sure most people can cite a “near crash event” that they experienced because someone was dialing a cell phone, texting or just jabbering and not paying attention. When I see someone driving slowly and erratically in a lane, I assume he or she is on a cell phone. It seems to be every bit as dangerous as drunk driving, but it’s taken rather lightly.

Maybe that’s finally starting to change. Eighteen states ban texting while driving in all cases, and another nine have rules about “novice drivers” texting. The Governors Highway Safety Administration has a nifty chart that explains where all of the states stand on the issue.

In states like Florida, where I live, Nevada, North Dakota, Alabama, South Carolina, and others, you can text your way into a five-car pileup and never get charged for it. Yes, I’m sure there are other laws that can be applied, but nothing specifically on the books about cell phone use.

Maybe now some of these states will begin following the fed’s lead.

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On reliefThe assumption is that stress during severe economic downturns has negative consequences for a population’s health. But a new University of Michigan study challenges that belief.

Although it sounds counterintuitive, life expectancy actually showed a major increase during the Great Depression, according to the study published in the September 28 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It jumped from 57.1 in 1929 to 63.3 years in 1932, according to researchers José A. Tapia Granados and Ana Diez Roux. And although overall life expectancy rose from 1929 to 1940, it curiously took a small dip during the brief Depression-era expansion from 1936 to 1937.

Tapia Granados and Diez Roux examined mortality rates for heart and kidney diseases, cancer, flu, pneumonia, tuberculosis, car accidents and suicides. They found an association between improved health and recessions for every major cause of death – except suicide.

So, even as income slipped away and dark clouds gathered ominously on the economic horizon, many people pushed on – and even thrived under tough conditions.

Why in the world would recessions make people healthier? Tapia Granados speculates: “Working conditions are very different during expansions and recessions. During expansions, firms are very busy, and they typically demand a lot of effort from employees, who are required to work a lot of overtime, and to work at a fast pace. This can create stress, which is associated with more drinking and smoking.

“Also, new workers may be hired who are inexperienced, so injuries are likely to be more common. And people who are working a lot may also sleep less, which is known to have implications for health. Other health-related behaviors such as diet may also change for the worse during expansions.”

Interesting stuff, and I would add my own bit of speculation. In the 1930s, when we had a more extensive manufacturing base, critical on-the-job injuries were surely more prevalent than they are now. Because not only have we shifted to a service-based economy (or, I would argue, a debt-based economy), we’ve improved safety standards for the most dangerous jobs.

Environmental conditions that affect long-term health have improved in the workplace. So I’m not sure we would see the same health benefits this time around.

Also, I think it says a lot that only one cause of death remained unfazed: suicide. Those dark recessionary clouds may have a silver lining. But unfortunately for many people, they’re just plain clouds.

Photo credit: On Relief in 1932, Seattle Municipal Archives

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