TMS Advances

8 Groundbreaking Discoveries in Psychology from 2020

February 24, 2021

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The future of mental health and potential treatments relies heavily on amazing, eye-opening research. Though there is a wealth of information out there about an array of psychology-related topics, it’s impossible to know everything or too much when it comes to the human mind. Whether the topics range from the science of addiction, preventing cognitive changes in the brain, or innovative treatment methods like transcranial magnetic stimulation, discoveries in psychology never fail to amaze and impress. If you’re trying to keep up with the revolutionary findings from psychology this past year, read down below for detailed and informative updates. 

Yoga and mindfulness can help those with chronic concussion symptoms

Understanding and diagnosing the neurocellular damage from concussions can be tricky for medical professionals, and seeking relief from chronic concussion symptoms can be even more stressful for those diagnosed. Fortunately, amazing meta-analysis conducted by the University of Connecticut has compiled data from past studies and discovered that health outcomes can be improved for those with chronic symptoms. 

Through mind-body techniques such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness exercises, depression and fatigue were shown to have significantly decreased in those suffering from a concussion. These techniques also consistently improved chronic symptoms like problems with memory and concentration. Steps as simple as using a meditation app, attending yoga classes, or performing deep breathing exercises daily may show promise in symptoms being relieved. These mindfulness exercises can help strengthen pathways in the brain while yoga can bridge the rehabilitation between the mind and body. This discovery is evidence of the wondrous relationship between body, mind, and brain. 

Man smokes a cigarette while looking over a city late in the evening
TMS therapy can be added to the list of smoking cessation methods. Image courtesy of Pexels.com.

FDA approves TMS for smoking cessation

One of the most remarkable aspects of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is the wide array of mental health disorders that it shows promise in treating. Though TMS has been FDA approved for major depression and obsessive compulsive disorder for years, research continues to show the therapy’s potential in treating various other mental illness symptoms. Just this year, TMS technology has been FDA approved to aid in smoking cessation in those addicted to nicotine. 

Smoking addiction is generally caused by a lack of modulation in the brain’s reward system that makes a person develop an uncontrollable desire for nicotine, but the electromagnetic pulses delivered by TMS technology can help regulate activity in brain areas associated with reward. A study measuring the addiction relief effects between a TMS therapy group and a no-treatment, or placebo, group concluded that TMS significantly decreased smoking habits. 

A drug shows potential in reversing age-related mental decline

An experimental drug known as ISRIB (integrated stress response inhibitor) has previously been shown in lab studies to restore memory function in those suffering from traumatic brain injury, reverse cognitive impairments in those diagnosed with Down Syndrome, and aid in fighting against specific types of prostate cancer. This miracle drug has just recently been studied by the University of California, San Francisco, and researchers concluded that the drug rapidly restored cognitive abilities in aged mice while rejuvenating brain and immune cells. 

Age-related cognitive decline is generally linked to compromised protein production in brain cells and increases in cell stressors, and integrated stress response (ISR) is a natural mechanism in the body that corrects these stress-caused mishaps in cells. But ISR as a process can become less efficient with aging and life stressors--fortunately ISRIB shows potential in correcting the ISR process overnight to reboost cognitive abilities. The drug ultimately shows promise in treating Alzheimer’s, Frontotemporal Dementia, and other neurological diseases. 

Two women sleep next to each other on a bed, facing away from each other
Experiencing consistent deep sleep may help prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. Image courtesy of Pexels.com.

Deep sleep can protect against Alzheimer’s

The deep stage of sleep is the third stage that one goes through in a sleep cycle. This stage of sleep entails your heart rate and breathing slowing, your muscles relaxing, and the brain producing slow electric waves. This stage of sleep is rehabilitative and essential for the brain because it allows waste products to be washed away, particularly levels of the beta-amyloid and tau proteins. Higher levels of these two proteins are hallmarks in Alzheimer’s Disease, and research from the University of California, Berkeley shows that a lack of deep sleep is associated with increased amounts of these proteins. 

During deep sleep waves of fluid flow through the brain along with electrical waves, and these flows are essential in eliminating toxins from the brain. Those with Alzheimer’s have been shown to have toxic masses of beta-amyloid and tau proteins in their brain cells. Deep sleep allows the brain to reduce these protein levels while also producing less of them as well. This shows much promise in preventative measures for Alzheimer’s Disease

Brain network signature of depression discovered

Diagnosing major depression is generally not too difficult for mental health professionals, especially with the wealth of literature and knowledge about symptoms. However, the relationship between depression and the brain is still filled with more mystery than researchers would prefer there be. Recently, a group of researchers from the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institutes International in Kyoto, Japan has discovered patterns of coordinated activity between areas of the brain diagnosed with major depression. Understanding the activity in the depressed brain is paramount to cultivating effective psychiatric treatments. 

The researchers used a brain imaging machinery to analyze and compile data about coordinated activity between different parts of the depressed brain. This method identified imaging data that could serve as a depiction of brain network activities that could define major depression. When using this data to identify major depression in other study patients, the data provided a seventy percent accuracy in recognizing depression. This groundbreaking research shows promise in understanding how major depression affects the brain and can potentially help in the creation of psychiatric interventions to target these activity patterns. 

Blood pressure drug can help those suffering from alcohol withdrawal

The drug Prazosin has typically been used to treat hypertension, or high blood pressure. Recent research from Yale has concluded the drug also shows potential in amplifying recovery for severe alcohol addicts. Those with severe symptoms such as tremors, alcohol cravings, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping were shown to have significantly fewer heavy drinking episodes and days spent drinking compared to those with few, less severe symptoms. 

For alcohol addicts early in recovery, stress centers in the brain are disrupted and makes it more difficult to handle stress without relapsing. Prazosin is effective because it targets these stress centers to moderate cravings and anxiety. The drug could help moderate withdrawal symptoms and cravings to reduce probability of relapse and further damaging the brain’s stress centers. 

Excited woman smiles and shops through chocolate bars in a convenience store
The motivation behind your food cravings and preferences can be linked back to neurons in a specific brain region. Image courtesy of Pexels.com.

Brain neurons can influence food preferences

It may be a mystery to most people where their cravings and food preferences emerge from, and weight loss can hold much more promise with the understanding of food cravings. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University have remarkably discovered that a specific brain region controls food preferences and that targeting neurons in those brain regions could control food cravings. Previous research had already established that the region known as the ventral pallidum was associated with food preferences, but this recent research expands this knowledge by analyzing neurons as well. 

The research showed that different neurons responded to plain water, which was preferred when thirsty, and sweetened water, which was preferred when thirst was quenched. Neural activity for the thirst-quenching plain water decreased while activity for the sweetened water increased, suggesting that different neurons respond to preferred food and drink versus what’s needed to satisfy basic hunger/thirst. Researchers also successfully manipulated neurons to make subjects crave flavors that were desired and those that weren’t. These circuits are similar to those in addiction and may explain how we prioritize drugs over other rewards. 

New technique in identifying liars developed

Spotting a liar requires specialized skills and techniques that are still being researched and understood. Though polygraph tests are commonly used to detect lies by measuring levels of anxiety in a subject, their accuracy is considered to be weak and debatable. Research recently published in the Journal of Applied Research and Memory and Cognition has identified new cognitive-based lie-detection methods. A particularly effective method known as asymmetric information management (AIM) technique showed a lie-detection accuracy rate of eighty-one percent in a study. 

In the forensic investigation realm, AIM focuses on an investigator informing suspects that divulging longer, more comprehensive details about a situation can help the investigation better detect if they’re being truthful or not. This introduction from the investigator often leads to a psychological asymmetry in suspect responses--those who are innocent are more likely to provide detailed information to prove their innocence, while dishonest suspects may still conceal and withhold information. A study that compared responses from subjects told to be honest about a situation to those instructed to be dishonest proved a high lie-detection rate using the AIM method. 

The discoveries and innovations making ground in psychology every year are always exciting and promising. The potential and future of mental health and those who work in the field continue to amplify with passing time and research studies. Keep your eyes open and ears up for the amazing findings that will continue on in the coming years.

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