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

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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’

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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

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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

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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.

ASMR is linked to anxiety and neuroticism, our new research finds

YuliaLisitsa/Shutterstock
AUTHOR: Dr Joanna Greer, Department of Psychology

The autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, is described as an intensely pleasant tingling sensation originating in the scalp and neck, and spreading down the body. ASMR is elicited by a range of video and auditory triggers, such as watching someone pretend to perform relaxing actions like massaging or hair brushing, or listening to soft sounds such as whispers or tapping. There are countless ASMR videos on forums such as YouTube attracting thousands, or in some instances millions, of subscribers and hits.

The triggers vary from person to person. But for millions of people worldwide, ASMR is a go-to for relaxation, sleep and to reduce stress.

While research interest in the phenomenon is growing, there’s a lot we still don’t know about ASMR. For example, why do some people experience tingles and others don’t? Could understanding the personality traits associated with ASMR guide us when thinking about ASMR as a potential therapeutic intervention?

Emerging literature suggests that people who are capable of experiencing ASMR exhibit greater levels of neuroticism. Neuroticism is a personality trait typically defined as a tendency towards depression, self-doubt and other negative feelings.

Neuroticism is also associated with a tendency to experience negative emotional states such as anxiety. And we know that people who watch ASMR regularly may do so to relax or reduce stress, potentially indicating elevated levels of anxiety.

Currently, there is very little research linking neuroticism with anxiety in people who experience ASMR, or into the effect of watching ASMR videos on anxiety. Our new study aimed to add to the evidence in these areas.

What we did

We recruited 36 people who experience ASMR and 28 people who don’t. All participants watched a five-minute ASMR video that was a compilation of multiple common ASMR triggers.

Before watching the video, the participants completed questionnaires assessing their levels of neuroticism, trait anxiety (a predisposition to experience ongoing anxiety), and state anxiety (their anxiety levels in the moment). They also answered questions about their state anxiety after viewing the video.

The ASMR-experiencers had significantly greater scores for neuroticism and trait anxiety compared to the non-experiencers, which suggests these are characteristics associated with the ability to experience ASMR. The ASMR-experiencers also had greater pre-video state anxiety scores, which were significantly reduced after watching the video.

In contrast, there was no difference in non-experiencers’ state anxiety scores before and after watching the video. So the ASMR video alleviated anxiety, but only among the ASMR-experiencers.

A woman sitting in a park watching something on her laptop, with earphones in.
ASMR videos are very popular on YouTube. Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

However, when we looked at the data in a different way, we found that a propensity for greater neuroticism and anxiety overall – regardless of whether participants experienced ASMR or not – was associated with the ASMR video having a positive effect on anxiety levels.

This emphasises the importance of individual personality traits when thinking about ASMR as a potential therapeutic intervention. It also shows us that the benefits of watching ASMR videos can be experienced even if you don’t necessarily feel the “tingle”.

What does this all mean?

We have provided new evidence regarding the traits that may characterise people who experience ASMR, and an indication that ASMR could have potential as an alternative treatment for anxiety.

Our study supports previous research demonstrating that ASMR-experiencers exhibit greater levels of neuroticism. We’ve also found that people with elevated anxiety levels are more likely to experience ASMR.

Notably, in our study, watching the ASMR video reduced state anxiety among people who experience ASMR. While this seems logical considering that people who seek out ASMR often do so for therapeutic reasons, the results of our study also suggest that ASMR may have anxiety-reducing effects more generally.

So if people are prone to neuroticism and/or anxiety, they may benefit from watching ASMR – even if they don’t routinely watch ASMR videos or experience ASMR tingles.

Where to next?

Our study was only in a relatively small number of people, and we cannot discount that the targeted group most likely had a predisposition to seek out ASMR. So it will be important to carry out research with more ASMR-naive participants.

Certainly, further research into the use of ASMR as a psychological intervention will be important to better understand how this may help people who experience anxiety.

In the meantime, findings from recent neuroimaging studies are beginning to shed more light on this phenomenon. Using a type of brain imaging called electroenchephalograpy (EEG), researchers have shown that the electrical activity known to be associated with relaxation (including mindfulness meditation) increased in response to ASMR stimuli. This was true even when participants were performing a mentally demanding task.

These studies suggest that ASMR leads to changes in brain activity typically associated with a relaxed state, possibly even during day-to-day activities. More neuroimaging research will compliment behavioural studies and help us to identify the mechanisms that could underpin ASMR’s anxiety-reducing capabilities.

About the author

Joanna Greer is a Senior Lecturer in the psychology department, working in the Cognition and Neuroscience research cluster.

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

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

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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 the nature of sleep disturbances in caregivers for people with dementia with Lewy bodies

authors: Dr Greg Elder, Dr Daniel Rippon and Prof Jason Ellis

Project background

Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) is the second most common type of dementia. DLB is a complex and heterogenous disorder, which is characterised by a range of symptoms, including neuropsychiatric symptoms, visuoperceptual difficulties and visual hallucinations.

The challenging, complex and symptom profile of people with DLB can have a significant impact upon their caregivers. DLB places a significant level of burden upon caregivers, and DLB caregivers typically report greater levels of distress than the caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s dementia (AD), or other types of dementia, even when DLB patients have a similar level of cognitive impairment. This has been shown to relate to the presence and severity of patient symptoms.

Caregiver distress is extremely likely to result in DLB caregivers developing sleep disturbances and disorders. A wide range of studies have indicated that stress is associated with subjective and objective sleep disturbances, and that stressful events can predict future sleep disturbances. Indeed, work from dementia caregivers, considered as a whole, demonstrates this: relative to age-matched control non-caregiver adults, caregivers have significant reductions in sleep duration (equivalent to losing up to 3.5 hours of sleep per week) and sleep quality. Additionally, even professional dementia caregivers demonstrate increased levels of stress hormones.

To date, no studies have specifically assessed sleep in DLB caregivers, or the relationship with stress and patient neuropsychiatric symptoms. This is extremely important as given the complex and challenging symptom profile of DLB, DLB caregivers are likely to be at a high risk of developing sleep disturbances and disorders. This is likely to have a direct negative impact upon their health.

Taken together, it is important to understand the nature of sleep disturbances in DLB caregivers. In particular, it is necessary to identify patient events or stressors which may negatively impact upon specific aspects of caregiver subjective and objective sleep. This will allow for the development and testing of bespoke DLB caregiver sleep interventions. This is important as techniques which optimise sleep in this population will benefit individual caregivers, as well as potentially having wider economic and societal benefits.

What is the goal of the proposed PhD Project

The goals of this PhD project are to:

  1. to examine, quantify, and compare the nature of subjective and objective sleep disturbances in DLB and AD caregivers
  2. to examine the association between specific patient neuropsychiatric symptoms and DLB caregivers
  3. design a bespoke DLB-specific caregiver intervention to improve sleep, and pilot and test its feasibility and effectiveness

This proposed studentship is very closely aligned with Dr. Elder’s current research programme, which is primarily focussed on subjective and objective sleep in patients with dementia with Lewy bodies.

What skills and knowledge does the PhD candidate need?

We are looking for an applicant who is passionate about clinically-applied sleep research. Given the novel nature of the project, you should demonstrate a high degree of professionalism and independence. You should possess a solid understanding of quantitative research methods and be willing to be trained in a variety of advanced sleep research methodologies (e.g. actigraphy, polysomnography).

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

Dr. Greg Elder is Associate Director of Northumbria Sleep Research and is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology. He is an experienced sleep researcher with expertise in the design, conduct and management of sleep research studies, including overnight polysomnography. Dr. Elder also has a wide range of expertise in designing and managing research studies involving patients with dementia with Lewy bodies, including interventional studies and clinical trials; additionally, he has expertise in the role of stress in sleep disturbances and insomnia, and behavioural interventions in this context. Dr. Elder is a Chartered Psychologist.

Dr. Daniel Rippon is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology. He has expertise in the design and conduct of research studies involving dementia caregivers. Dr. Rippon also has relevant clinical and research links with the Campus of Ageing and Vitality (Newcastle University), where he has developed a home-based service for supporting caregivers, and has clinical experience working within the NHS.

Professor Jason Ellis is Director of Northumbria Sleep Research and is a Professor of Sleep Science in the Department of Psychology. Professor Ellis has a wide range of expertise in the development and testing of behavioural interventions for insomnia.

More information and how to apply

If you would like to discuss the opportunity, please contact the principal supervisor by email (Dr. Greg Elder: g.elder@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

Rippon, D., McDonnell, A., Bristow, M., Smith, M., McCreadie, M. & Wetherell, M., (2021), Elevated Levels of Hair Cortisol Concentrations in Professional Dementia Caregivers, Stress.

Elder, G.J., Colloby, S.J., Firbank, M.J., McKeith, I.G., Taylor, J-P (2019). Consecutive sessions of transcranial direct current stimulation do not remediate visual hallucinations in Lewy body dementia: a randomised controlled trial. Alzheimer’s Research and Therapy, 11 (1), 9.

Elder, G.J., Colloby, S.J., Rowan, E.N., Lett, D., O’Brien, J.T., Anderson, K.N., Burn, D.J., McKeith, I.G & Taylor, J-P (2016). Depressive symptoms are associated with daytime sleepiness and subjective sleep quality in dementia with Lewy bodies. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 31 (7), 765 – 70.

The Big 5 Episode 6: Barbora Duskova “You get to know yourself, what you like, and what you want to do as your career.”

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Today is National Philanthropy Day, a time to reflect on how we can volunteer our time and money to help others. On this episode of the podcast, Northumbria Psychology student, Barbora Duskova tells us about her experience volunteering for the European Federation of Psychology Students Association and working in Dr. Katri Cornelisson’s lab as a research assistant. At the end of the episode, you’ll also hear about three psychology related volunteering opportunities. Details for these are in the show notes below.

Show notes:

Wanna join the European Federation of Psychology Students Association? Find out more here.

If you’d like to become a Nightline volunteer. Check out this student union page.

If you’re interested in becoming a mentor for other psychology students, please check out this page.

If you’d like to take part in the Volunteer Research Assistant scheme, you can contact michael2.craig@northumbria.ac.uk and look out for information about the scheme on your program level Blackboard site. (Please note that this scheme is only for current Northumbria students.)

A transcript of the podcast can be found here.

The Big 5 episode 3: Dr. Nick Neave on Digital Hoarding “We keep possessions and form attachment to possessions. That’s what humans do.”

Photo of digital files on a computer screen.

On #CleanYourVirtualDesktopDay, Dr. Nick Neave tells us about his research on Digital Hoarding. We learn more about how humans anthropomorphise their possessions and why we have such a hard time throwing things away.

Show notes:

You can find the transcript of this episode here: Episode 3 Nick Neave transcript.docx

For more information on Nick’s research, visit his page here.

To find out more about types of digital hoarders, you can read this paper.

For more on the anthropomorphism questionnaire, you can read this paper.

Treatments for Mental Health Problems 

To mark World Mental Health Day, I’m writing a blog that covers two separate, but related, things. Both things relate to a question a patient asked me back in about 2014 and which I have thought a lot about since then

“Why aren’t researchers churning out new treatments for mental health problems the way new treatments for cancer get churned out?” 

Author: Dr David Smailes

The first thing I wanted to write about is something that I think is implicit in that patient’s question, but doesn’t exactly answer it. It’s about how well treatments for mental health problems work in comparison to other types of health problems.

How effective are treatments for mental health problems?

A relatively widely held belief is that interventions for mental health problems aren’t very effective. However, at least some of the data we have suggests that treatments in psychiatry (such as medications for things like obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and panic disorder) work, on average, about as well as treatments for other types of health problems (such as medications for heart failure, asthma, and COPD). 

A number of caveats need to be added here, as the authors of the study – Leucht and colleagues – noted. For example, it is difficult to compare how well treatments for different illnesses or health problems work because the outcomes researchers in different fields look at are so different. That is, if a psychological/psychiatric treatment doubles the likelihood that a patient recovers from depression, is that treatment as effective as one which halves the risk of someone dying from a heart attack? That’s a hard judgement to make. We also need to take into account things like the side effects of treatments, too. All of this means, in short, that it’s very difficult to say how well treatments for mental health problems work in comparison to treatments for other types of health problems. But looking at the data from Leucht and colleagues’ analysis, treatments for mental health problems seem reasonably effective. 

That being said, I think no one would disagree with the claim that we need to develop novel, more effective treatments for mental health problems. Disappointingly, over the past few decades, few – if any – novel, more effective interventions for mental health problems have been developed. There are many possible explanations for the lack of novel, more effective treatments – low levels of funding in mental health research in comparison to things like cancer researchmental health problems simply being more difficult to understand and develop interventions forresearchers focussing on the wrong kinds of questions. But the possible explanation I’m focussing on here is that too much of the research done into the causes of mental health problems can’t be replicated. 

The problem of replication

When research can’t be replicated, this means that when other researchers try to repeat a study someone else has performed, they fail to find the same results. The results of the original study, therefore, may be untrustworthy. Over the past decade, many scientific fields have re-examined what proportion of the findings they generate are replicable, and in several areas of psychology it has been estimated that only 30-50% of findings are replicable. Mental health researchers have, however, not really examined how replicable (or trustworthy) findings in our field are. But I see no reason to expect that our field will be different to other areas of psychology. This means that it is quite likely that much of the evidence we have about what factors might cause mental health problems will be wrong. And this is important because our understanding of what causes mental health problems tends to shape the treatments we develop to treat mental health problems. So, if we aren’t doing replicable research into what causes mental health problems, then we have little chance of developing novel, more effective treatments for those mental health problems. 

Happily, there are many reasonably straightforward solutions to these problems. We know, for example, that running studies that (a) use larger samples than we have typically achieved in the past, that (b) pay more attention to how well variables are being measured, and that (c) involve fully open reporting of how the study will be run and how its data will be analysed generates findings that are more replicable and trustworthy.

How is the Psychology Department at Northumbria addressing this issue?

Here in the Department of Psychology, we have been conducting studies in line with these solutions, to try to improve the replicability and trustworthiness of mental health research. These studies have tested how replicable some findings in hallucinations research are when large sample sizes are used and have shown how we can examine whether variables in research have been measured effectively. More broadly, Northumbria University has joined the UK Reproducibility Network, an organisation that aims to improve the replicability and reproducibility of all areas of research in the UK. This is a really important step and shows that the university is committed to generating really robust, trustworthy research. 

As I said earlier, some the solutions to the problem of research findings that can’t be replicated and so seem untrustworthy are quite straightforward, but they are often time-consuming and costly. This has meant that the take-up of these solutions has been quite slow. But, at least to me, it does feel like mental health research is beginning to move in the right direction. And the quicker that can happen, the sooner we should be able to start developing novel, more effective treatments to help people struggling with their mental health. 

Interested in hearing about our research in to mental health?

Head over to our health and wellbeing research blog

COVID smell loss can have profound effects on your life, from weight change to intimacy barriers

Flotsam/Shuttestock
AUTHOR: Vincent Deary, Northumbria University, Newcastle and Duika Burges Watson, Newcastle University

It took a while to be officially recognised, but smell loss eventually became known to be one of the defining features of COVID-19. It’s now widely acknowledged that COVID-19 has a unique effect on smell receptors, and about 10% of those who lose their smell are still reporting problems with smell and taste six months later.

The effects of this can be profound. So we wanted to document what it was like to live with long-term smell and taste problems, and we did this by working with the smell-loss charity AbScent, which has an online support group for people with post-COVID smell problems.

By speaking to people in this group, we were able to build a picture of the wider impacts of disrupted smell following COVID-19. At the time of conducting our research, over 9,000 people had joined the group. Every day we were seeing new accounts of the devastating effect of sensory change.

We started posting questions to get a better sense of what was going on, and the response was overwhelming. People really wanted their experiences to be heard. With the consent of participants, we began to analyse their responses. We ran every theme we detected past the group and got them to comment on our research paper before we finalised it. We wanted to be sure we were telling their stories correctly. Here’s what we found out.

The end of food satisfaction

It’s been hard for people even close to me to understand the severity of the loss and how it’s affected my life.

Before we go further, let’s define a few key terms. Anosmia is total loss of smell. Parosmia is where normal smells are distorted, usually unpleasantly. Taste is what is picked up by the receptors on the tongue. Flavour is the total sensory experience of food, to which smell is the major contributor, but the other senses are also involved. This means that even if your taste (tongue) is fine, loss of smell will seriously affect flavour.

The first thing that struck us was how unpredictable and disorientating the sensory loss experience could be. For some, the effects were absolute:

It was like a light switch: from 100% to 0% in a couple of hours… No distorted smells, no whiffs, nothing. It’s like my nose switched off.

For others, things were more fluid. Anosmia could mutate into parosmia. Food that was fine one day could become disgusting the next. This “chaos narrative” – as sociologists call it – meant that smell loss was very difficult to live with, let alone manage. A condition over which there was no control.

A woman disgusted at the smell of a cup of coffee
What was once familiar and enjoyable could suddenly become strange and unpleasant. Farknot Architect/Shutterstock

The effect on appetite was also unpredictable. As might be expected, people had trouble eating – particularly when normal smells were distorted. Some were really struggling, reporting malnutrition and severe weight loss.

Less obviously, some people reported weight gain. These were usually people with anosmia, who were “chasing flavour” after losing their sense of smell. You can understand this if you realise the distinction between wanting and liking in what psychologists call the pleasure cycle.

Wanting is where you are chasing the thing you are going to consume. Liking is when you have got it and you are savouring it. In anosmia, that savouring part is no longer there, but this doesn’t stop the wanting:

Food satisfaction is lacking and I see myself eating more to try to get that satisfied feeling… I am gaining weight due to a constant urge to satisfy what can never be satisfied.

Intimacy is a scent

But it wasn’t all about food. Until you lose it, you don’t realise how essential eating is to everyday joys, especially social pleasures:

I am grieving for my lost senses. No more wine and cheese tasting nights or gin cocktails with my “girls”.

Even more heartbreaking was the effect of sensory changes on intimate relationships. There were a lot of posts where people described the loneliness of no longer being able to smell their partner or their children. Again, until it is gone, you don’t realise how important smell is to intimacy and connection. Even worse was the effect of parosmia:

His natural odour used to make me want him; now it makes me vomit.

How do you tell your lover that?

A man smelling his girlfriend's hair
Smell is an important but underappreciated part of what makes a person seem who they are. puhhha/Shutterstock

Some people’s relationships with themselves and the world had also changed. Some with no sense of smell reported feeling detached from themselves and the world. With parosmia, it could be more disturbing yet, with disgusting smells being triggered by everyday scents, making the world feel like a dangerous and confusing place.

For some these sensory changes were, fortunately, temporary. However, months down the line, many are stuck with profound sensory changes, with all the distress that brings. While there is evidence that smell training helps sensory recovery in other conditions, we are still at the early stages of understanding and developing treatments for what amounts to a pandemic of altered sensing.

About the Authors

Vincent Deary, is a Professor of Applied Health Psychology, within the Health and Wellbeing Research Group in the Department of Psychology at Northumbria University. He is also a member of the Altered Eating Network: https://twitter.com/AlteredEating

Duika Burges Watson, is a Lecturer in Global Health, Newcastle University

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Bilingualism as a remedy for declines in thinking skills

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com
Authors: Joanna Kubiak and Dr Andriy Myachykov

Do you know what it means to be bilingual?

In the simplest of terms, a bilingual person is someone who can communicate in at least two languages (Grosjean, 1982). Until the 1980s, it was believed that being bilingual is disadvantageous because the brain’s capacity is very limited; hence, speaking two languages would use more brain power and make it less effective. Some scientists went as far to say that children growing up in bilingual families are more likely to face learning difficulties. If you think that sounds untrue, then you are absolutely correct!

Changing perceptions

So, let’s discuss what has changed and how bilingualism is perceived nowadays. In short, rather positively. In the last 20 years, scientists have found substantial evidence for the beneficial impact of bilingualism on the human brain. Many argued that active use of two languages can improve sustained attention and executive functions such as inhibitory control. This means that a bilingual person will have, on average, better ability to focus their attention in response to a stimulus or activity. Additionally, it may be easier for a bilingual to suppress or ignore irrelevant information. This advantage observed in bilinguals is usually explained by the fact that bilinguals need to constantly suppress one language while using another, therefore they obtain some additional cognitive training.

Furthermore, brain scans demonstrated that in certain brain regions, bilinguals and monolinguals differ in activity level when they are performing exactly the same tasks. These findings clearly support the idea that using more than one language provides a person with some extracurricular brain training, which changes its activity. Naturally, contrasting opinions were voiced that didn’t fully agree with the concept of bilingual superiority in cognitive functioning. For instance, Duñabeitia and colleagues (2014) did not find any advantage amongst bilingual children compared to monolingual children on the task measuring inhibitory control.

Despite those contradictory findings, the recent review of the research in the area showed that most studies present results supporting the ‘bilingual advantage’ theory. In fact, there is a general consensus now, that speaking two languages does not constrain one’s cognitive abilities and if anything, it improves them.

“Since bilinguals receive more cognitive stimulation throughout their lifespan, they may develop additional protection against cognitive decline”

All things considered, the belief that bilingualism can be beneficial for the brain is justifiable. Following this logic, researchers started exploring other ways this new knowledge could be applied. Some suggested that since bilinguals receive more cognitive stimulation throughout their lifespan, they may develop additional protection against cognitive decline. After all, growing evidence suggests that stimulating the mind can protect our thinking skills as we grow older. For instance, in a study by Martin and colleagues (2011), it was found that older people who received memory training showed better immediate and delayed verbal recall than people who didn’t.

But how exactly could bilingualism impact cognitive ageing?

Exciting new evidence suggests that being bilingual may impact some mechanisms responsible for slowing down the decline in thinking skills caused by age. One thing that scientists have observed is that the cognitive changes we see in ageing, don’t always map on to physical changes in the brain, in that some people appear to be more ‘protected’ against the effects of age. Researchers have proposed that this is due to something called Cognitive Reserve. This cognitive reserve is proposed to help some individuals cope with brain damage and age-related changes in the brain.

Crucially for our research, it is now believed that we can strengthen our cognitive reserve throughout our lifetime. For example, education, occupation and physical activity are all related improved cognitive reserve. Furthermore, as you could have already guessed, bilingualism is thought to be another contributor to the construct of the cognitive reserve. We can derive from this that people who are bilingual may develop more cognitive ‘resources’, thus mitigating the effect of ageing.

Why does this matter?

If all of the above is true, then is there really a need for further research? Well, the need certainly exists due to the constant increase in cases of dementia, a disorder caused by a serious decline of thinking abilities such as memory and problem-solving. Importantly, cognitive reserve holds out the promise of interventions that could alleviate the risk of dementia. Consequently, since bilingual seniors are thought to possess a better cognitive reserve than non-bilingual seniors, they should be more efficiently protected from developing dementia symptoms.

By 2050 the number of people diagnosed with dementia is projected to at least double! This will impact not only the patients’ families but also taxpayers in general. To prevent this disaster, we need to work and try to find effective ways to slow down cognitive ageing. Researching bilingualism evidently provides some hope for a better understanding of cognitive decline and therefore dementia, which hopefully helps reduce the effect this disease has on the population.

Can you help with our research on this topic?

With this goal in mind, our team has started investigating how bilingualism can strengthen cognitive reserve.  We specifically focus on the impact of proficiency in the second language, time passed since acquiring the second language and the frequency of using the second language in day-to-day life.

To keep the sample consistent, we are recruiting people who use English as their second language and are aged 60 or above. The results of our study should provide us with some insight into the role these variables play in the cognitive reserve and we hypothesized that all factors will be positively correlated with better cognitive performance.

It is important to mention that our survey controls for other factors, which could influence cognitive reserve, such as a persons general intelligence, health, social network and activities. If you know anyone who meets our criteria, please let them know (using the link below). Every contribution is priceless and in the long run, may reveal the secrets behind delaying cognitive ageing.

https://www.psytoolkit.org/c/3.3.2/survey?s=HOZZz

If you have any questions or would like further information, please contact the research team:

Andriy Myachykov, Federico Gallo, Joanna Kubiak (w18019446@northumbria.ac.uk)

About the Authors

Joanna Kubiak is a final year psychology student at Northumbria University, on the BSc Psychology programme

Dr Andriy Myachykov is an Associate Professor in the psychology department, and the lead for our Cognition and Neuroscience research group

Read more about our work in Cognition and Neuroscience on the blog!