Monday, August 15, 2016

What is a preliminary study in psychology, and why do babies twitch while they sleep?

Mark Blumberg, Ph.D., of the University of Iowa, received a 5 million dollar MERIT Award from the National Institutes of Health for his work studying brain activity in young organisms. First, congrats to Dr. Blumberg, and second, I bring this up because of a press release I read this week from the University of Iowa (UI). 

What is preliminary research?
Preliminary research is where all good research starts. It is “pre”, before, more research is done. It is a starting point towards answering a question. But, just a starting point. It is the first few peer reviewed papers of many to come.
Dr. Blumberg said in the UI press release, “You would think that when animals are asleep, they’re not going to have that much brain activity, and then when they wake up, the activity will be really robust, because they’re awake,” he said. “You would think the brain would reflect the behavior. But we’ve seen exactly the opposite.”
With this observation and many questions about early development, Blumberg and his colleagues are looking into why babies twitch while they sleep. He first looked at baby rats, and now is doing observational studies of human babies with support from the Gates Foundation. 
Initially it was thought that babies twitched during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep due to dreaming. But Blumberg speculates that there is a developmental component, that sleep twitching may help the development of the infant’s nervous system. 
For example, infants that are learning to hold their heads up show more neck twitches than infants that have more control over their heads. The thought is that twitches help the growing nervous system test the electrical infrastructure and prepare for the next developmental achievement.  
“Preliminary” leads to press speculation
Further along in the press release we see clinical speculation. I bring this up not to bad mouth this researcher but as a warning to the reader. Often in press releases, and especially in the title of them, the study information is exaggerated into what is hoped to be found in the future. In this case we have this:

Blumberg’s research could be important in understanding neurodevelopment disorders, such as autism and schizophrenia.

The research could also be used to help people who have suffered from strokes or amputations to regain control of their nervous system as their brain restructures itself.

Please note, the research into baby twitching is being done, there is no research being conducted concerning autism, schizophrenia, strokes, or amputations.

I have talked with researchers that are surprised by the speculations made by university or corporate press releases. The writer of the press release, often not a scientist, hopes the press release will get circulated around the world by newspapers and bloggers. The goal of a press release is to get noticed and to shed a little light back on the university or corporation. 

So, keep a critical eye when reading press releases, or articles written based on press releases.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Why we blink is more complicated than we think

The basic explanation about why we blink is to keep our eyes moist and to wash away dirt with our tears. This is interesting but, it seems like people blink much more than we need to keep our eyes damp and clean.

Eye Tear Chart and Flow of Tears Chart

Japanese researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, in 2013, that eye blinks allow the brain to momentarily process visual information. They explain:
The results suggest that eyeblinks are actively involved in the process of attentional disengagement during a cognitive behavior by momentarily activating the default-mode network while deactivating the dorsal attention network.

It seems that by packaging visual input into small data bursts, our brains can quickly transfer this input information to different parts of our brain to analyze it.
Science and magic
Way back in 1896, Joseph Jastrow wrote in Science his laboratory observations of how slight-of-hand experts trick our observations.  In the last 20 years or so, psychologists interested in how we perceive, have looked at how magicians can misdirect an audience, use banter to distract us, or give us mind puzzles to gently confuse us, so we miss visually what is happening right in front of our eyes. 
In April of 2016, in PeerJ, Richard J. Wiseman and Tamami Nakano took this type of eyeblinking/brain research one step further. Their basic question was: How does a magician use, knowingly or not, our eyeblinks to trick us? They wrote:
Given that blinking is associated with the relaxation of attention, these findings suggest that blinking plays an important role in the perception of magic, and that magicians may utilize blinking and the relaxation of attention to hide certain secret actions.

The research showed that the magicians did their slight-of-hand when the audience blinked, thus hiding the secret action. It seems magicians are able to trigger or anticipate when we will blink by using banter, mind puzzles, or boring misdirection. And, isn’t it interesting we as an audience participate and blink when the magician expects us to.
This is a fun and well implemented protocol done in the real world conditions of watching a magic trick.  Psychologists, magicians, as well as law enforcement, may need to look at the implications this has on how we humans perceive our world.  

Please let me know what you think by clicking the “comments” below.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

It is hard for toddlers to learn words in noisy rooms. Dah!

Today I read in the journal Child Development that toddlers have a hard time learning new words when the room is noisy.  My first response was, “Well, of course!” All kidding aside, the researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, did a good job with this study.

Most research of toddlers and learning is done in carefully organized laboratory conditions. This makes sense, the goal of the research is to test for one controlled change at a time. But, what Brianna McMillan (doctoral student) and her colleagues did, was test for learning in a more realistic environment. They pointed out:
Both younger (22- to 24-month-olds; n = 40) and older (28- to 30-month-olds; n = 40) toddlers successfully learned novel label–object pairings when target speech was 10 dB louder than background speech but not when the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) was 5 dB.

Most toddlers live and learn in the noisy, real world. The TV is on in the background, big sister is listening to music upstairs, or the radio is on in the car as mom and dad talk. Toddlers have the opportunity to learn words throughout their day.
Turn off the TV?
The findings show that it is best to teach toddlers new words in a calm environment. I am sure most parents know this. The implication of the study brings up that when a quiet space is not available, it may be detrimental to language growth. 
I have been a family therapist for 35 years. It is amazing to me how often parents fight me on “quiet time” in the house. I often suggest that during homework time, bath time, and bedtime, TV and radios should be turned off, allowing for easier communication between family members, and for personal thought time. I often hear, “We don’t really watch that much TV, we just keep it on for background noise.”
I suggest that limiting background noise is a good thing. 

Please let me know what you think by clicking the “comments” below.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Laundry Pods Still Dangerous for Children

Back in October 2012 I reported in this blog that colorful laundry detergent pods get the attention of young children. The pods do resemble candy to my adult eye, so I assume toddlers and young children might also see them as sweet treats.

Hospitalization 4 times more common
Hospitalization was 4 times more likely with detergent pods than liquid or powder detergent contact, according to a study in Injury Prevention.
The researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, reviewed 36,000 cases of children being treated in U.S. emergency rooms for exposure to laundry detergent during the years 2012 to 2014. 
The records showed that 26,000 children had contact with liquid or powdered detergent and almost 10,000 additional children were hurt by laundry pods.  Most of the children were treated for contact dermatitis (irritation, redness, itchy skin, burning of skin or eyes). But of note, children were much more likely to be poisoned if they got hold of the laundry pods.
The authors stated:
Poisoning (71.3%) was the most common diagnosis for pod detergent while contact dermatitis (72.2%) was most common for non-pod detergent. Hospitalization occurred in 12.5% of pod detergent cases and just 3.0% of non-pod cases. Compared with non-pod detergent, those exposed to pod detergent were 4 times as likely to be hospitalized.

Laundry detergent is dangerous
The warning here is clear. Laundry detergent is dangerous for the little ones and laundry pods are by far the most dangerous. 
In case of emergency call 911.
For more information on the dangers of laundry products please read: Laundry Product Poison and Prevention Info at They advise:
Prevent poisonings by storing laundry products out of sight and reach of children. Also, keep products in their original containers. Countless children (and adults!) have swallowed bleach from a cup, thinking it was water. Pouring bleach into a cup, then leaving it on the counter or washing machine, is an invitation to poisoning.
If a child gets into a laundry product, here's what to do:
  • If the product is in the eyes or on the skin, flush with running water for at least 15 minutes, then call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222. The poison specialist will ask a few questions about what happened and if there are any symptoms. Then, the specialist will tell you exactly what to do. Most of the time, the incident can be managed at home if you call Poison Control right away.
  • If the product is swallowed, give a small amount of water or milk. Then use the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for guidance or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222. Both resources can help with common scenarios like:
  • My child drank bleach (like Clorox). What should I do? Is it poisonous?My child bit a laundry pod (such as TidePods, all® mighty pacs®, Purex UltraPacks, Gain flings). Is it dangerous? Should I take him to the emergency room?
  • My child ate a fabric softener sheet or a dryer sheet (such as Bounce or Snuggle).
  • My child drank a fabric softener (such as Downy, Snuggle, Gain, Final Touch, Purex).
  • My child swallowed laundry detergent (for example, All, Tide, Purex, Arm & Hammer, Wisk, Sun, Oxi, Persil, Xtra, Cheer).
Pets too
FYI: It is a good idea to keep laundry supplies away from our pets too!

Please let me know what you think by clicking the “comments” below.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Nutritional supplements: a difficult conversation to have with patients

Food as medicine

Almost daily patients tell me about nutritional supplements and how they have heard…  
copitch cartoon 837 organic cigarettes

Often parents tell me about how removing something from their child’s diet, or adding something to their child’s diet is supposed to change their child’s behaviors.
Adults tell me how they recently started to add something to their daily diet and how they have already started to notice a positive change. 
These anecdotal stories are interesting but not scientifically based. We humans can easily and inadvertently fool ourselves. 
To make this subject more confusing is the fact that there is an industry that is trying to sell nutritional supplements to solve all sorts of problems. This industry is not allowed to say they cure anything, but they can cleverly allude to “curing things”. 
Examples of “cures” without actually making a medical claim:
  • Boosts energy
  • Heart friendly
  • Calming and restful
  • Promotes a good night’s sleep
  • Supports memory and learning
  • Used by millions of active people around the world

This industry spends a lot of money promoting their pills and powders.
If you want to learn more, may I suggest you read the Federal Trade Commission’s Dietary Supplements: An Advertising Guide for Industry.
Should I discuss nutritional supplements with patients?
I often wrestle with the benefits of discussing nutritional supplements with patients. I want to help educate, but teaching the complexities of science based medicine is time consuming and daunting. Often if I even slightly bring up the subject, patients will stiffen and perceive me as being judgmental of them. 
So, as long as the food supplement is inert and not getting in the way of sound treatment protocol, I smile and say. “I’ve noticed that people that eat a well balanced diet, sleep enough, and walk a bunch everyday report that they feel better. I guess my mom was right. She was big on veggies, walking, and getting enough sleep.”
Nutritional supplements and cognitive decline
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported:

While some research suggests that a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids can protect brain health, a large clinical trial by researchers at the National Institutes of Health found that omega-3 supplements did not slow cognitive decline in older persons. With 4,000 patients followed over a five-year period, the study is one of the largest and longest of its kind.

This was a well structured study. Sorry I can’t report that we have found the magic pill, but it is better to have sound clinical evidence than simple anecdotal stories and hopeful speculation.
Add your comment below:

Monday, July 18, 2016

Copitch, Inc. is back to normal after the fire

Out of the phoenix

After my office was accidentally burned down, I found that I had to stop doing some activities that I enjoyed, but couldn’t allot any time towards. One guilty pleasure was writing this blog.

Now that the fire is behind us, I look forward to penning some science based articles and answering your questions.

So, feel free to send me general psychology questions. Remember, I am a therapist, but I am not your therapist. Thus, I am not offering any personal clinical help here.

Have questions about, marriage, family, or your neighbor's child--I look forward to reading them. Want some psychology term explained in plain English, I’ll try my best.