The Big 5 Ep 17 Kristans Nemkovics “I embarked on this journey to find the pillars that are important to succeed in your studies.”

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In this episode, Kristians Nemkovics tells us about studying during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kristians went on a journey to develop new health sleep, study and eating habits. Kristians gives students advice on how to succeed at university.

Show notes:

For more information on developing good study habits check out this advice from the Amercian Psychological Association.

For some tips on improving your sleep hygiene check out this website. If you’re interested in studying sleep we have many excellent sleep researchers in the department. You can read a blog about their work here and find out why you sometimes feel like you’re falling when you go to sleep.

For some tips on how to start an exercise regimen, check out this advice on the Mayo Clinic’s website and here are some free excercise videos from the NHS.

You can find the show transcript here.

The Big 5 Episode 16: Dr. Micheal Smith “I sometimes feel stressed in my day to day life. What can I do about it?”

Photo by Jessica Lewis Creative on Pexels.com

On this episode of The Big 5, Dr. Micheal Smith tells us about a simple way to reduce stress: writing about a positive event in our lives. This episode is our second installment in honor of Stress Awareness Month.

Show notes:

Want to read more about Micheal’s research? You can find more about him on his staff page.

Here is another articles on expressive writing where Dr. Smith is featured:

https://hbr.org/2021/07/writing-can-help-us-heal-from-trauma

You can find the show transcript here.

The Big 5 Episode 15: Dr. Mark Wetherell “We know that we all get stressed, but actually understanding how and when it happens is really important”

Photo by Pedro Figueras on Pexels.com

On this episode of the Big 5, Professor Mark Wetherell takes us on a freefalling tour de stress through bears, skydiving, multitasking, and helicopter rescue! We discuss how stress enters the body, the benefits and drawbacks of stress, and how worrying about jumping out of a plane is worse than actually jumping out of one. #stressawarenessmonth

Show notes:

To learn more about Mark’s research you can check out his staff page or follow him on Twitter @drminkster.

Find out more about Stress Awareness Month 2022 on this webpage.

You can find the show transcript here.

A plant-enriched diet for a healthy mind (and a longer life!)

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com
AUTHOR: Dr Philippa Jackson

A study published last month revealed that adopting a diet high in whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, vegetables and fish and low in red and processed meat and sugary beverages could lead to an increased lifespan [1]. The authors revealed that the greatest gains in life expectancy could be possible by changing to an optimal diet in your 20’s (10 years), but even changes later in life at the age of 80 might extend life by almost three-and-a-half-years.

When considering ‘optimal ageing’, thoughts may immediately turn to a long life free of chronic illness, especially non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes, and this study suggests that plant-based nutrient-dense foods are fundamental to ageing successfully. Of course, ensuring optimal mental health and brain function across the lifespan is equally important and here nutrition also has an important role to play. Indeed, a recent review found that dietary patterns containing the exact same beneficial food groups identified in the study above had a protective effect with regards to improving measures of cognitive impairment and/or reducing risk of cognitive impairment or dementia [2].

However, you don’t need to wait until older adulthood to feel the benefits of following a healthy diet; data from our lab at Nothumbria University collected over the last two decades has revealed beneficial effects of a wide variety of nutrients (e.g. vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids), herbal extracts (e.g. ginkgo biloba, ginseng, lemon balm) and plant compounds found in everyday products (tea, chocolate, berry fruits) on cognitive function and mood in healthy adults that are observable after the course of anything from a few minutes to a few weeks, depending on the item. In this blog, I’ve talked about some of our more recent findings.

There’s more than just caffeine to your morning coffee ‘hit’

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

The alerting effects of coffee are often ascribed to the beverage’s caffeine content. Although not untrue, caffeine is not the only ‘active’ ingredient in coffee; in fact, the coffee bean itself contains a plethora of different compounds that have the potential to either directly affect brain function or work together with caffeine to produce effects. The major group of compounds of interest in coffee are called chlorogenic acids (CGA) and are particularly enriched in the flesh of the coffee fruit itself (coffee berry) and green unroasted beans.

Although roasting the beans diminishes the amount of CGA found in your average cup of coffee they are still present, with one study reporting CGA espresso content in several European countries in the range of 6–188 mg per cup [3]. Two recent studies from our lab investigated the effects of coffee berry extract on mood and cognitive performance and found a consistent pattern of alerting effects that was evident across the entire six-hour testing period, which cannot be attributed to the relatively small amount of caffeine found in the extract (22 mg vs 75 mg in an average cup of coffee) [4, 5].

These results support some of our previous findings, which demonstrated alerting effects of decaffeinated coffee in both younger and older adults [6]. Collectively, these data point to an alerting effect of the non-caffeine components of coffee. As it is these compounds that are also likely to underpin coffee’s beneficial effects on physical health [7], individuals choosing decaffeinated options are still getting a healthful ‘hit’ in the morning too.

The world’s most valuable spice: An unlikely mood enhancer

Photo by Victoria Bowers on Pexels.com

Saffron is known throughout the world for its distinctive colour and taste and has been used in culinary dishes across Europe and Asia for millennia. Saffron stigmas are naturally rich in several bioactive compounds and its pain-relieving and sedative properties are recognised by traditional Asian medicine where it is used to treat a range of physical ailments including menstrual disorder, inflammation and depression [8, 9].

The anti-depressant activity of this herb has recently been explored in controlled trials; a meta-analysis of these data revealed that 30 g/d saffron extract for six weeks significantly improved symptoms in patients with major depressive disorder compared to placebo, but also had similar antidepressant efficacy when compared with mainstream antidepressant medications [10].

Our lab investigated whether these mood effects could be seen in otherwise healthy adults who reported subclinical feelings of low mood and anxiety and/or stress, who would not meet a formal diagnosis of depression. Compared to placebo, we found that eight weeks’ supplementation with 30 g/d saffron extract improved depressive symptoms, although no effects were observed for stress or anxiety [11]. Findings such as this are important as they highlight the potential for non-pharmacological plant extracts in supporting mental health. 

A humble herb with an ancient medicinal past

Photo from Pexels.com

Few would naturally think of their herb garden as a source of the next generation of dementia preventing products but the aromatic herbs belonging to the mint family such as peppermint, rosemary, lavender, lemon balm and sage are a rich source of phytochemicals with established psychoactive properties relevant to cognitive decline. Of all these culinary herbs, sage has the widest documented use in traditional medicine dating back to the ancient Greeks and is reputed to have cognitive or memory enhancing effects by several medicinal systems [12].

These effects were investigated by our lab using controlled trials and we have demonstrated consistent improvements in cognitive function in healthy adults following single doses of two different species of sage, Salvia officinalis (garden sage) and Salvia lavandulaefolia (Spanish sage)[13, 14]. Concurrent beneficial effects on mood such as increased calmness and alertness [15] and reduced mental fatigue [16] have also been observed.

Our lab also recently demonstrated beneficial effects on working, or short term, memory performance after four weeks’ daily consumption of a treatment combining both these sage species [17], opening up the exciting possibility of exploiting the individual chemical profiles of both species for maximum benefit.

So what should we be eating?

These are just a few examples of some of the interesting effects of different dietary items, some of which are consumed every day. The plants we ingest, in whatever form, are packed with compounds that interact with the chemistry of our bodies and brains that have the potential to help us live healthier, happier, and ultimately longer lives. The best way to achieve this is to incorporate as wide a variety of plants into your diet as you can.

About the Author

Dr Philippa Jackson is an associate professor in the psychology department at northumbria university and associate director of our Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre. The centre sits within our Health and Wellbeing Research Group.

References

  1. Fadnes, L.T., et al., Estimating impact of food choices on life expectancy: A modeling study. PLOS Medicine, 2022. 19(2): p. e1003889.
  2. Boushey, C., et al., USDA Nutrition Evidence Systematic Reviews, in Dietary Patterns and Neurocognitive Health: A Systematic Review. 2020, USDA Nutrition Evidence Systematic Review: Alexandria (VA).
  3. Ludwig, I.A., et al., Variations in caffeine and chlorogenic acid contents of coffees: what are we drinking? Food Funct, 2014. 5(8): p. 1718-26.
  4. Jackson, P.A., et al., A Randomized, Crossover Study of the Acute Cognitive and Cerebral Blood Flow Effects of Phenolic, Nitrate and Botanical Beverages in Young, Healthy Humans. Nutrients, 2020. 12(8): p. 2254.
  5. Jackson, P.A., et al., Acute cognitive performance and mood effects of coffee berry and apple extracts: A randomised, double blind, placebo controlled crossover study in healthy humans. Nutr Neurosci, 2021: p. 1-9.
  6. Haskell-Ramsay, C.F., et al., The Acute Effects of Caffeinated Black Coffee on Cognition and Mood in Healthy Young and Older Adults. Nutrients, 2018. 10: p. 1386.
  7. Tajik, N., et al., The potential effects of chlorogenic acid, the main phenolic components in coffee, on health: a comprehensive review of the literature. Eur J Nutr, 2017. 56(7): p. 2215-2244.
  8. Rios, J.L., et al., An update review of saffron and its active constituents. Phytotherapy Research, 1996. 10(3): p. 189-193.
  9. Akhondzadeh, S., et al., Crocus sativus L. in the treatment of mild to moderate depression: a double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial. Phytother Res, 2005. 19(2): p. 148-51.
  10. Hausenblas, H.A., et al., Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) and major depressive disorder: a meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. J Integr Med, 2013. 11(6): p. 377-83.
  11. Jackson, P. A., Forster, J., Khan, J., Pouchieu, C., Dubreuil, S., Gaudout, D., … & Kennedy, D. O. (2021). Effects of saffron extract supplementation on mood, well-being, and response to a psychosocial stressor in healthy adults: A randomized, double-blind, parallel group, clinical trial. Frontiers in nutrition, 365.
  12. Kennedy, D.O. and A.B. Scholey, The psychopharmacology of European herbs with cognition-enhancing properties. Curr Pharm Des, 2006. 12(35): p. 4613-23.
  13. Kennedy, D.O., et al., Monoterpenoid extract of sage (Salvia lavandulaefolia) with cholinesterase inhibiting properties improves cognitive performance and mood in healthy adults. J Psychopharmacol, 2011. 25(8): p. 1088-100.
  14. Kennedy, D.O., et al., Effects of cholinesterase inhibiting sage (Salvia officinalis) on mood, anxiety and performance on a psychological stressor battery. Neuropsychopharmacology, 2006. 31(4): p. 845-852.
  15. Tildesley, N.T., et al., Salvia lavandulaefolia (Spanish sage) enhances memory in healthy young volunteers. Pharmacol Biochem Behav, 2003. 75(3): p. 669-74.
  16. Tildesley, N.T., et al., Positive modulation of mood and cognitive performance following administration of acute doses of Salvia lavandulaefolia essential oil to healthy young volunteers. Physiol Behav, 2005. 83(5): p. 699-709.
  17. Wightman, E.L., et al., The Acute and Chronic Cognitive Effects of a Sage Extract: A Randomized, Placebo Controlled Study in Healthy Humans. Nutrients, 2021. 13(1): p. 218.

The Big 5 Episode 9: Nicki O’Brien “Developing visual communication methods for health challenges” (Funded PhD opportunity)

Picture of a man wearing a mask.

On this episode of The Big 5, Dr. Nicki O’Brien tells us about her innovative work using animated GIFs to teach people about COVID-19 health behaviors like mask wearing and hand washing in Guatemala. She also discusses a funded PhD project starting October 2022. Applications due February 18, 2022.

Show notes:

To follow Nicki on Twitter: @NickijObrien

Check out the GIFs here. And an article about the GIFs can be found here.

Interested in the PhD opportunity? The advert can be found here.

You can find the transcript for this episode here.

The Big 5 Episode 8 Alyson Dodd “Measuring student well-being in line with student priorities” (PhD opportunity)

Photo by George Pak on Pexels.com

On this episode, Alyson tells us about her research on student well-being and what students struggle with during their transition to university. She also tells us about a funded PhD studentship opportunity! (See link below.)

Shownotes:

Find Dr. Alyson Dodd: on Twitter @alysondodd and on her staff profile.

You can learn more about SMaRteN and read the report Alyson references here.

Interested in this PhD opportunity? Check out the advert here.

Transcript for this episode can be found here.

Funded PhD Opportunity: Understanding persuasive effects of message framing for vaccination uptake in university students

Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com
Author(s): Angela Rodrigues and Nicki O’Brien

The field of health communication tends to centre on analysing the effectiveness of specific information contexts and less on relationships between message framing, intentions and behaviour (Nabi & Green, 2015; Joyce & Harwood, 2014). People’s health-related decision-making is not completely rational (Witteman, van den Bercken, Claes & Godoy, 2009). Framing effect theory suggests that different presentations of health-related information can affect individuals’ decision-making preferences (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). Research suggests that messages presenting gains are more persuasive in encouraging prevention behaviours (Noar, Harrington & Aldrich, 2009); Rothman, Bartels, Wlaschin & Salovey, 2006). Gain framing messaging may be more effective in promoting vaccination – a type of health preventive behaviour (Park, 2012).

Persuading young adults to get vaccinated is critical for the national vaccination programme as a whole and is also arguably the key to achieving herd immunity. Within the national vaccination programme for young adults, the following vaccinations are available: Human papillomavirus (HPV), meningitis, seasonal influenza, and COVID-19.

According to the latest figures, HPV vaccine coverage for the first dose in 2019/20 was 59.2% in Year 8 (aged 12-13) females (compared with 88.0% in 2018/19) and 54.4% in Year 8 males (Public Health England, 2020). From September 2019 the national HPV vaccination programme became universal with 12- to 13-year-old males becoming eligible alongside females (Public Health England, 2020). For females that missed or chose not to get the HPV vaccine offered in school, they can get the vaccine up until their 25th birthday; males can take up the vaccine until they are 45 years old (NHS, 2021).

Influenza is a vaccine-preventable disease, and annual influenza vaccination is the most effective method for prevention (WHO, 2012). Despite not part of the national vaccination programme, some universities are implementing a flu vaccine for their student communities (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/students/support-and-wellbeing/health-care/vaccinations/get-flu-vaccination).

Research has found low seasonal flu vaccine uptake and low vaccine knowledge among university-aged students (Ryan, Filipp, Gurka, Zirulnik, & Thompson, 2019). In the US – where influenza vaccination is recommended for everyone aged ≥6 months – data show that vaccination rates range from 9-30% in university students (Ryan, Filipp, Gurka, Zirulnik, & Thompson, 2019). Recent evidence suggests that making the flu vaccine part of the national vaccination programme for young adults (<20 years old) might be cost-effective (Hill et al., 2020). 

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the urgency to vaccinate young adults and promote COVID-19 vaccination uptake in this population is particularly pronounced (Lucia, Kelekar & Afonso, 2021). Recent NHS England figures show that approximately 75% of 18-24 years olds have had one COVID-19 vaccination; but only approximately 60% have had two vaccinations (NHS England COVID-19 Dashboard 21 Oct. , 2021). Together, these figures highlight that a proportion of young adults is left unvaccinated. Vaccination of young adults can potentially provide direct protection for the recipients and indirect (herd) protection for the community (Pebody et al., 2018).

In the transition period of attending university, for many away from home, there might be an opportunity to promote a range of vaccinations to young adults, and shape these emerging adults’ vaccination habits for other vaccines, such as the COVID-19 vaccines. As settings within which students become independent, universities have both a responsibility and the potential to enable healthy development (Tsouros, Dowding, Thompson & Dooris, 1998). Accordingly, ‘health-promoting universities’ are being called upon to embed health into all aspects of campus culture and of providing health-promoting activities for students (Bachert et al., 2021).

Understanding underlying mechanisms that drive young adults’ preferences for and engagement with vaccination campaigns could inform the design of effective messaging to influence their decision-making processes when communicating during a public health crisis.

What is the aim of this PhD project?

This PhD project will develop and test, evidence-based vaccination messages targeted at young adults, using framing theory as theoretical approach.

Objectives

  1. Appraise existing vaccination campaigns directed at young adults by exploring effective behaviour change strategies and mechanisms of change associated with vaccination uptake;
  2. With young adults, co-design and develop a suite of health messages aimed at promoting vaccination uptake (such as influenza, COVID-19, HPV, meningitis);
  3. Conduct experimental and longitudinal studies to explore young adults’ preferences for and impact of the co-produced vaccination messages.

What skills and knowledge does the PhD candidate need?

We would love to work with someone who feels passionate about health-related behaviour change, and is keen to further our understanding.

You should possess a sound grounding in quantitative and qualitative research methods but have ambition to extend your skills into other research design methods

Applicants will normally have a track record of academic achievement in psychology or a related discipline, demonstrated by a first class or upper second undergraduate honours degree and/or a master’s degree (or equivalent)

About the supervisors

Angela is a Senior Lecturer in the psychology department and has experience in the area of developing and evaluating complex interventions for behaviour change, with a specific focus on theory- and evidence-based interventions. Angela co-Leads the Behaviour Change Research Programme of Fuse (the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health).

Nicki is a Health Psychologist and an Associate Professor in the Psychology department. She has expertise in health behaviour and behaviour change interventions, and a particular interest in the application of co-design techniques for intervention development with stakeholders.

The supervisory team works alongside other behaviour change experts in the north east of England and the North East North Cumbria NHIR ARC

More information and how to apply

If you’d like to discuss the opportunity, please contact the principal supervisor, Angela Rodrigues (angela.rodrigues@northumbria.ac.uk). Details on how to submit an application are below. We’ve added some useful reading for prospective candidates at the end of the post

Details on how to submit an application are below. We’ve added some useful reading for prospective candidates at the end of the post

The advert for the post can be found here, this includes full eligibility requirements. As part of the application process you will need to submit a 1000 word proposal of how you would approach the project by 18th February 2022

Full details of the application process can be found here

Further Reading

Ruddy, E., Moor, J., Idowu, O., Araujo Soares, V., Rodrigues, A., & Birch-Machin, M. The Impact of COVID-19 lockdown on health behaviours of the UK population: a cross-sectional study. European Journal of Cancer Prevention. [Manuscript in preparation].

O’Brien N, Vijaykumar S, Craig M, Land E, Aguilar S, Bedoya X, De la Cruz R, Najera E, Nicolau L (Under Review). A before-after cross-sectional survey of the effect of exposure to GIFs communicating Covid-19 preventive behaviours on behavioural cognitions of Guatemalan adults. Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

O’Brien N, Land E, Vijaykumar S, et al. (2021) Languageless animated gifs to communicate COVID-19 preventive behaviours to adults in Guatemala: Development and evaluation of efficacy. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 28:S11-S12.

Araújo-Soares, V., Hankonen, N., Presseau, J., Rodrigues, A., & Sniehotta, F. F. (2019). Developing behavior change interventions for self-management in chronic illness. European Psychologist, 24(1), 7-25.

Rodrigues, A., Sniehotta, F. F., Birch-Machin, M. A., Olivier, P., & Araújo-Soares, V. (2017). Systematic and iterative development of a smartphone app to promote sun-protection among holidaymakers: design of a prototype and results of usability and acceptability testing. JMIR Research Protocols6(6), e112.

O’Brien N, Heaven B, Teal G, Evans E, Cleland C, Moffatt S, Sniehotta FF, White M, Mathers J, Moynihan P (2016). Integrating evidence from systematic reviews, qualitative research, and expert knowledge using co-design techniques to develop a web-based intervention for people in the retirement transition. Journal of Medical Internet Research,18(8):e210; doi: 10.2196/jmir.5790

Funded PhD Opportunity: Languageless visual messages to prevent Covid-19 transmission

Authors: Dr Nicki O’Brien, Dr Santosh Vijaykumar and Dr Michael Craig

Background to the project

Effective public health communications are critical to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Internationally, government guidance and legislation have advocated and coerced evidence-based transmission preventive behaviours, such as physical distancing, good hygiene practices such as handwashing, and mask-wearing. Encouraging individual adherence to these behaviours is challenging, requiring input and evidence from psychology and behavioural science.

Research on the individual determinants of transmission preventive behaviours provides evidence of potentially modifiable targets for behaviour change interventions to help during the Covid-19 pandemic. Intention, self-efficacy and outcome expectancies have been shown to predict preventive behaviours of physical, handwashing and mask-wearing.

Information is better retained when health communications include visuals rather than text alone. Visual communications do not rely on language but use images and animations to tell the message narrative. In countries with multiple official languages, visual languageless communications can disseminate messages to the entire population.

The languageless visual messages (GIFs) that have been developed

The proposed project will extend previous work of a collaboration between the supervisory team at Northumbria University and the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala, Guatemala (http://www.odhag.org.gt/). The collaboration developed evidence-based, languageless, animated messages, in the form of GIFs, which have been disseminated via social media across Guatemala and on the national catholic TV channel. The GIFs can be seen here. Guatemala is an exemplar multilingual country with 25 official languages spoken (24 indigenous and Spanish).

The effect of exposure to the GIFs on behavioural beliefs about performing the preventive behaviours has been examined through an online experimental study of Guatemalan adults. The data demonstrated that exposure to the GIFs resulted in significant improvements in key determinants of preventive behaviours, namely intention, self-efficacy and outcome expectancies. These preliminary data suggest promise of the GIFs to have a positive impact on adherence to behaviours, however, this is yet to be determined.

The aim of this PhD project

To identify and explore how different features and potential mechanisms of action of languageless health messages (GIFs), promoting Covid-19 preventive behaviours, impact on their potential effectiveness. The project will include a consensus study to identify the behavioural science evidence base (including the behaviour change features) of the GIFs and a series of experimental studies to explore the effects of exposure to the existing GIFs and modified GIFs (i.e., with varying message features and mechanisms of action) on adherence to preventive behaviours in different Latin American and UK populations.     

The supervisory team

This PhD project will be supervised by Dr Nicki O’Brien, Dr Santosh Vijaykumar, Dr Michael Craig (Department of Psychology), and Ellie Land (Department of Arts). The supervisory team combines the complementary disciplinary, methodological and topic expertise required to fully support this research: Dr O’Brien is a Health Psychologist with expertise in health behaviour and behaviour change interventions. Dr Vijaykumar is a health and risk communication scientist with expertise in public health, behavioural science and new media technologies.  Dr Michael Craig is an experimental psychologist with expertise in the investigation of human cognition and the effects of behavioural interventions. Ellie Land is an award-winning factual animation maker, director, educator and researcher with expertise in animated short, feature-length and interactive films.  

The skills and experience a candidate needs

We are looking for someone who is keen to develop the science of behaviour change within the context of languageless visual health messages. Candidates would be expected to have a background in psychology, public health, health communication or a related discipline, demonstrated by a first class or upper second undergraduate honours degree and/or a master’s degree (or equivalent). An interest in design is desirable but not essential. Knowledge and experience of quantitative research methods are needed.  

More information and how to apply

If you’d like to discuss the opportunity, please contact the principal supervisor, Nicki O’Brien (nicki.obrien@northumbria.ac.uk).

The advert for the post can be found here, this includes full eligibility requirements. As part of the application process you will need to submit a 1000 word proposal of how you would approach the project by 18th February 2022

Full details of the application process can be found here

Funded PhD Opportunity: Developing a framework of community well-being in universities

AUTHORS: Dr Alyson Dodd, Dr Libby Orme and Dr Lisa Thomas

In this post, you’ll be able to read a bit about the PhD programe we have advertised. We’ve included a brief video to introduce the project and the supervision team too

Several leading organisations in the UK Higher Education sector (Hughes & Spanner, 2019Thorley, 2017; Universities UK, 2020) advocate a ‘whole university approach’ that promotes student and staff mental health and well-being via facilitating healthy settings, learning approaches, and support provision.

The problem of the whole university approach 

Existing research has not captured well-being from a whole-university perspective. For example, our own research discusses how student well-being is typically measured by self-report questionnaires asking about subjective or psychological well-being completed by individuals. There is relatively scant research on the well-being of university staff (particularly in non-academic roles) compared to students, but a similar individual approach to conceptualising and measuring well-being is used in research on university staff well-being. 

Research has looked at student and staff well-being separately, often focusing on specific roles and factors underpinning well-being linked to these. While this is important, the sector also needs to develop an understanding of what ‘being well together’ means in universities. In addition, the notion of what community means in universities is not well-understood. For example, the National Student Survey asks students if they ‘feel part of a community of staff and students’, but this is not clearly defined. 

Understanding what community is to students and staff in universities can help shape an understanding of how to facilitate well-being in a university community.   

What is community well-being?

Community well-being is not the same as the sum of individual subjective or psychological well-being in a given community. In a conceptual review, What Works Well-being used the following working definition of community well-being as “the combination of social, economic, environmental, cultural, and political conditions identified by individuals and their communities as essential for them to flourish and fulfil their potential.”  

In order for universities to facilitate a sense of community well-being, first we have to understand what community means to students and staff in Higher Education. Then we can develop a framework for conceptualising and defining universitycommunity well-being, that will inform how we measure whole-university well-being from a whole-university perspective, and evaluate initiatives developed to improve this. 

What is the goal of the proposed PhD Project

In line with the What Works Well-being guidance for developing a framework of community well-being, this project aims to 

  1. develop a model of university community well-being, and
  2. develop an initial measure of university community well-being.  

We hope to do this through a combination of methods, such as qualitative interviews, Delphi surveys, psychometric research and online surveys

What skills and knowledge does the PhD candidate need?

We would love to work with someone who feels passionate about well-being in universities, and is keen to further our understanding.

You should possess a sound grounding in quantitative and qualitative research methods but have ambition to extend your skills into other research design methods

Applicants will normally have a track record of academic achievement in psychology or a related discipline, demonstrated by a first class or upper second undergraduate honours degree and/or a master’s degree (or equivalent)

About the supervisors

Alyson is an Associate Professor in the psychology department and is on the leadership team of the UKRI-funded network SMaRteN, which focuses on student mental health and well-being.  Alyson has led a published scoping review (see further reading), UK-wide stakeholder consultation, and a forthcoming SMaRteN report on measuring well-being in a student population. She chairs a Special Interest Group on this topic. Alyson is also a partner on the Office for Students Challenge Competition project Brighter, which is evaluating student well-being interventions. 

Libby is an Associate Professor of learning and teaching and the deputy head of the psychology department at Northumbria. She has a strong interest in student community and well-being, the transition to university, the use of technology in Higher Education and academic staff development. Libby works across disciplines on projects related to student well-being, what community means, and how these feed into university strategy.

Lisa is a Senior Lecturer in the psychology department, Associate Director of the Psychology and Communication Technology (PaCT) Research Group, chair of the Psychology Department’s Athena Swan team, and Fellow of the HEA. Prior to her lectureship appointment, she was a Senior Researcher for three successive multidisciplinary EPSRC projects- one in particular, ReelLives, explored the ways in which individuals could take ownership of their digital identity. Her research interests lie within Psychology and Human Computer Interaction (HCI)- the role of technologies in life transitions, student community and well-being, self-presentation online and authenticity.

More information and how to apply

If you’d like to discuss the opportunity, please contact the principal supervisor, Alyson Dodd (Alyson.dodd@northumbria.ac.uk). Details on how to submit an application are below. We’ve added some useful reading for prospective candidates at the end of the post

The advert for the post can be found here, this includes full eligibility requirements. As part of the application process you will need to submit a 1000 word proposal of how you would approach the project by 18th February 2022

Full details of the application process can be found here

Further Reading

Atkinson, S., Bagnall, A., Corcoran, R., & South, J. (2017). What is community well-being? Conceptual review.  

Dodd, A. L. (2021). Student mental health research: moving forwards with clear definitions. Journal of Mental Health, 30(3),273-275. 

Dodd, A. L., Priestley, M., Tyrrell, K., Cygan, S., Newell, C., & Byrom, N. C. (2021). University student well-being in the United Kingdom: a scoping review of its conceptualisation and measurement. Journal of Mental Health, 1-13.

Sleeping longer than 6.5 hours a night associated with cognitive decline according to research – what’s really going on here?

Does too much sleep really increase your risk of cognitive decline? Dragan Grkic/Shutterstock
AUTHOR: Dr Greg Elder, Northumbria University

A good night’s sleep is important for many reasons. It helps our body repair itself and function as it should, and is linked to better mental health and lower risk of many health conditions – including heart disease and diabetes. It’s also been shown that not getting enough sleep is linked to cognitive decline and conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

But more isn’t always better, as one recent study found. Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine have published a paper that indicates that just like getting too little sleep, sleeping too much may also be linked with cognitive decline.

The research team wanted to know how much sleep was linked to cognitive impairment over time. To do this, they looked at 100 older adults in their mid-to-late-70s on average, and tracked them for between four and five years. At the time of their study, 88 people did not show any signs of dementia, while 12 showed signs of cognitive impairment (one with mild dementia and 11 with the pre-dementia stage of mild cognitive impairment).

Throughout the study, participants were asked to complete a range of commonplace cognitive and neuropsychological tests to look for signs of cognitive decline or dementia. Their scores from these tests were then combined into a single score, called the Preclinical Alzheimer Cognitive Composite (PACC) score. The higher the score, the better their cognition was over time.

Sleep was measured using a single-electrode encephalography (EEG) device, which participants wore on their forehead while sleeping, for a total of between four to six nights. This was done once, three years after people first completed their annual cognitive tests. This EEG allowed the researchers to accurately measure brain activity, which would tell them whether or not someone was asleep (and for how long), and how restful that sleep was.

Two examples of EEG devices on mannequin heads.
Participants would have worn a device similar to this to track their sleep. wideonet/ Shutterstock

Although sleep was only measured at one period during the study, this still gave the research team a good indication of participants’ normal sleep habits. While using an EEG to measure brain activity may be somewhat disruptive to sleep on the first night, as people get used to the equipment, sleep tends to return to normal the following night. This means that when sleep is tracked from the second night onwards it’s a good representation of a person’s normal sleep habits.

The researchers also took into account other factors that can affect cognitive decline – including age, genetics and whether a person had signs of the proteins beta-amyloid or tau, which are both linked to dementia.

Overall, the researchers found that sleeping less than 4.5 hours and more than 6.5 hours a night – alongside poor quality sleep – was associated with cognitive decline over time. Interestingly, the impact of sleep duration on cognitive function was similar to the effect of age, which is the greatest risk factor for developing cognitive decline.

A good night’s sleep

We know from previous research that lack of sleep is linked to cognitive decline. For example, one study showed that people who reported sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or excessive daytime sleepiness, have a greater risk of developing dementia compared to people who don’t. Other research has shown that people who have short sleeping times have higher levels of beta-amyloid in their brain – which is commonly found in the brains of people who have Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers don’t know for certain why lack of sleep is linked to cognitive decline. One theory is that sleep helps our brain flush out harmful proteins that build up during the day. Some of these proteins – like beta-amyloid and tau – are thought to cause dementia. So interfering with sleep might interfere with our brain’s ability to get rid of these. Experimental evidence even supports this – showing that even just one night of sleep deprivation temporarily increases beta-amyloid levels in the brain of healthy people.

But it’s less clear why long sleep is linked with cognitive decline. Previous studies have also found a link between over-sleep and cognitive performance, but most relied upon participants self-reporting how long they sleep nightly – which means the data is less accurate than using an EEG to measure brain activity. This new study therefore adds weight to such findings.

What’s surprising about this study’s findings is that the optimal sleep duration is much shorter than that which previous studies have suggested are problematic. The study showed that sleeping longer than 6.5 hours was associated with cognitive decline over time – this is low when we consider that older adults are recommended to get between seven and eight hours of sleep every night.

It could be the case that it isn’t necessarily the length of the sleep that matters, but the quality of that sleep when it comes to risk of developing dementia. For instance, this study also showed that having less “slow-wave” sleep – restorative sleep – particularly affected cognitive impairment.

What we also cannot tell from this study is if long sleep durations can independently predict cognitive decline. Essentially, we can’t rule out that participants who slept longer than 6.5 hours every night might not have already had pre-existing cognitive problems of brain changes suggestive of dementia that weren’t picked up on the tests. And although the researchers were careful to adjust for dementia-related factors, longer sleepers may also have had other pre-existing conditions that might have contributed to their cognitive decline which weren’t taken into account. For example, this could include poor health, socioeconomic status or physical activity levels. All of these factors together may explain why longer sleep was linked to cognitive decline.

There are many factors which can impact on both our sleep quality, and whether we experience cognitive decline. While some factors aren’t preventable (such as genetic predisposition), there are many things we can do alongside getting a good night’s sleep to help reduce our likelihood of developing dementia – such as exercising and eating a healthy diet. But while the researchers of this study seem to suggest there’s an optimal sleep duration – between 4.5 and 6.5 hours every night – the occasional weekend lie-in is unlikely to do your brain any harm.

About the author

Greg Elder is a Senior Lecturer in the Psychology Department at Northumrbia, Associate Director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research, and a member of the Cognition and Neuroscience Group. You can read more posts by the group over in our Cognition and Neuroscience Blog

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.