Monday, April 30, 2007

TO READ: Depression's Devastating Self-Criticism Explained
When serious depression kicks in, one often-heard complaint is, "I do everything wrong." Now researchers have brain-wave evidence about where this perception may come from. Results from one study show that depressed people make no more mistakes than healthy controls -- but that they truly are better at detecting their errors.

Scientists measured two types of brain waves as subjects did a simple signal-detection task, and found that depressed people were just as quick and accurate as the non-depressed. No slowness or concentration problems were noticed. However, both types of brain waves -- one called error-related negativity, which measures brain resources used in early detection of errors, and the other called error positivity, which indicates error detection -- are exaggerated in depressed people.

Those responses indicate that the depressed group used more of their brain resources to detect errors. Researchers suggest that when they make a mistake, depressed people are more likely to notice it than a healthy person would be. While this extra acuity might be a good thing in certain situations, it also may be responsible for the hyper-criticism often felt during the illness. Something to bear in mind when that I-can't-do-anything-right feeling kicks in!

For more info: American Journal of Psychiatry 2007 164:58.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

TO WRITE: A Sound from Childhood
Memories, especially those from childhood, can often evoke strong emotions, as well as triggering even more memories. Instead of replaying the same old childhood stories in your mind (we all have some that we rely on to piece together the story of our life), try with this exercise about specific sounds to see what other details or experiences you may not have thought about for a while. "New" material can supply all sorts of creative undertakings. In addition, focusing on specific sensory experiences makes for strong writing.

Play with this...
First, brainstorm a list of five to ten specific sounds you recall from childhood. My list includes the zip when my father cast his fishing line from a canoe on a lake, and the blaring honk of the tornado alarm in elementary school. Next, choose one of these sounds -- preferably one you haven't thought about for a long time -- and write for 20 minutes about your experiences relating to it. Then consider how it felt to write this memory -- was it sad, funny, a relief, an "aha" experience? If a particularly difficult memory came up, give yourself a few more minutes to write an imaginary ending to the story that wraps things up in a way you'd prefer.

Monday, April 23, 2007

TO READ: Why Did I Have To Gain 80 Pounds on Antipsychotics?
Researchers may have solved the mystery of why so many people with bipolar, depression, schizophrenia and other illnesses who take certain antipsychotic medications tend to gain weight -- sometimes lots of it.

While these medications may effectively treat symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions, that's a high price to pay. (I know -- I gained 80 pounds in a few months on one of these meds. Fortunately it's almost all come off now that I'm on a newer one instead.) Many people gain to the point that they become at risk for life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

Scientists knew that the link between brain cells and appetite seems to be an enzyme known as AMPK. Now, in a recent study at Johns Hopkins University, when researchers gave the antipsychotic medication clozapine to mice, their AMPK activity quadrupled. When the scientists chemically suppressed the mice's appetites, the AMPK levels lowered. But what mediates such a connection?

It turns out that histamine -- the substance responsible much allergic misery, as well as a protein which aids communication between cells -- plays a key role in the interaction between AMPK and appetite. By blocking histamine's effects, clozapine no longer led to AMPK spikes.

The results are exciting: This discovery may allow scientists to develop both a new generation of antipsychotic drugs that doesn't cause weight gain, and safe weight-loss drugs.

For more info: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online edition, February, 2007.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

TO WRITE: A Cold Got You Down? Write About It!
I see low, deep gray clouds and the spattering of raindrops outside my window here in Northern California today. And the weather report says a big part of the country is getting snow on this day before tax day. Have the recent shifts in weather contributed to a spring cold for you, as it has many people I know? (So far, so good for me ... for this month.)

After you wake from your weekend nap and pop some more Benadryl, don't turn on the TV to numb your mind. Instead, consider curling up with a cup of hot tea and a blanket in your favorite chair and writing out just how miserable you are. You might just feel better. Your mind will engage and you may forget your sore throat for a while. And remember that writing has been demonstrated to improve immune functioning. I'm not claiming that writing will cure your cold -- but research does show that writing even 20 minutes a day for four days in a row about a difficult or traumatic experience leads to fewer doctor visits for months later. Now that's something to think about!

Play with this...
Describe how your body feels right now as if you're writing for someone who's never had a cold -- the aches, the fever, the lethargy, the stuffiness. OR describe a time you were sick as a child -- what were your symptoms? Who took care of you? How did the illness resolve? Write continuously for 20 minutes. When you look back at the pages you've filled, you'll see you have accomplished something today after all.

Monday, April 09, 2007

TO READ: Religion Shown to Help Depression for Many of Us
The data is overwhelming: Study after study shows that people who consider themselves religious or spiritual, especially those who attend weekly religious services, tend to be generally healthier and longer-lived than those who don't. And -- this rule of thumb holds true for depression in particular too. Interestingly, it's reported that 95% of Americans believe in God or a Universal Spirit. Along the same lines, a study of psychiatric inpatients found that 80% consider themselves religious or spiritual.

In terms of overall health, for example, one study which tracked more than 5,000 people from right here in Alameda County, CA, found that those who attended religious services at least weekly were 25 % less likely to die during the study than others. A huge 1999 study of 21,000 American adults found that by attending religious services more than once a week, people tended to extend their lifespan by up to seven years in general, and up to 14 years in African-Americans.

In terms of depression, the results are remarkable too. For example, in one study of 177 people (age 55-89) over one year, self-reported religiousity was correlated with less depression, and with recovery from depression in those who were initially depressed. Another study looked at depressed and medically ill men over age 60 for one year and found that, even after accounting for 27 other variables, religiousity was associated with both a greater likelihood of remission and a quicker remission from depression. In one review of 29 studies examining the relationship between depression and religious involvement, 24 found that religiously involved people had less depression and fewer depressive symptoms; five found no association.

Treatment of depressed religious people has been shown to be more effective in terms of post-treatment depression when religious content is added to standard cognitive-behavioral therapy and, in another study, when religious content is added to standard psychotherapy.

And what if you don't consider yourself a "religious" person? Good news: benefits of a spiritual but non-religious practice can still provide benefits that complement your medical treatment. Consider a regular yoga or meditation practice, for example. Also, giving to others through works and services can often provide a strong inner response. In addition, pay attention to your personal support network, and health habits such as drinking and smoking -- all of these have been shown to be improved by religious involvement, but don't rely on believing.

Remember -- spiritual beliefs should not be used to replace your medical care! Instead, appreciate how they can complement and augment one another in your efforts to feel better.

For more info see: and