Myelination: The Neurobiological Underpinnings of Personality

Personality and Neuroscience

The neurological basis of personality has always been a bit of a mystery but researchers are now one step closer to understanding it. Using advanced brain scan technology, researchers were able to estimate myelination levels in different brain areas.

So what exactly is myelin? Myelin is a fatty substance that insulates nerve fibres in your brain. It speeds up information processing and it’s usually thicker in cortex areas related to perception and movement. The process of coating nerve fibres, also known as axons, with myelin is called myelination. Myelination helps protect and conduct electrical signals in the neuron.

Research Study

Over 1000 young men and women around the age of 29 took personality tests tapping into the Big Five traits and based on their brain scans, it was found that personality traits that are seen as more advantageous such as conscientiousness and emotional stability, may benefit from enhanced myelination in specific areas of the brain during development. These brain areas are where the myelination process is prolonged and continues through adolescence and into your twenties.

Throughout the sample size (1000 brain scans), researchers noticed a pattern where myelination occurred through the cortex. Myelination was thicker in motor and sensory cortices and lighter in the frontal and parietal areas. Frontal and parietal regions support high order mental functions and while myelination appeared lighter, the process was longer.

In addition, researchers found several links between personality traits and myelination:

1) Lower emotional stability (i.e. higher neuroticism) correlated with less myelination in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region involved in emotional control

2) Higher agreeableness correlated with greater myelination in orbitofrontal cortex, specifically in the anterior region which is implicated in prosocial behaviour

3) Higher conscientiousness correlated with greater myelination in part of the prefrontal cortex which is associated with the human conscience

It seems as though traits considered more advantageous are associated with greater myelination but it’s more complicated than that. The study found that higher conscientiousness and higher trait openness were correlated with less myelination in a frontal brain area called the anterior cingulate cortex, an area involved in monitoring mistakes. In addition, greater neuroticism was correlated with more myelination in the occipital lobe.

Impact and Outcomes

The findings from this study improves our understanding of personality through a neurobiological standpoint. In the future, it would be interesting to investigate how personality traits and myelination patterns vary over time and see how factors such as diet, genes, and education may influence these patterns.

References

Toschi, N., & Passamonti, L. (2018). Intra-cortical myelin mediates personality differences. Journal of Personality. doi:10.1111/jopy.12442

https://digest.bps.org.uk/2019/01/08/people-with-advantageous-personality-traits-have-more-nerve-fibre-insulation-myelination-in-key-brain-areas/

Personality and Academic Performance: The Underlying Connections

Have you ever heard of the Big 5? The Big 5 is a theory that broadly categorizes personality traits into 5 distinct dimensions:

  • Openness,

  • Conscientiousness,

  • Extroversion,

  • Agreeableness; and

  • Neuroticism

Each person has a different combination of traits within each dimension that make up their personality. Based on these combinations, people tend to behave in certain ways that are in line with characteristics of each dimension. In addition to playing a role in influencing one’s behaviour, recent research out of The University of Texas at Austin suggests that these personality dimensions may also influence a child’s performance in math and reading in ways we might not expect.

Contrary to popular belief, dominating traits in the conscientious dimension like carefulness, self-discipline, organization, and efficiency are less likely to be related to the skills needed to excel in reading and math. Quite the opposite. Instead traits dominant in openness like adventurousness, imagination, curiosity and self-confidence have been found to be more linked to the complex set of skills needed for academic proficiency. This not to say that lower scores in openness automatically doom children to academic disappointment. While the goal-directed behaviour of a conscientiousness dimension certainly encourages the kind of diligence and perseverance required to excel in academic settings; openness has been found to encourage thoughtfulness, tolerance of unusual ideas, and the intellectual flexibility needed to adapt to different academic circumstances.

Research

Drawing connections between human behaviour and academic performance is no new exploration. However, prior studies only looked at the impact of self-regulation on academic skills. Despite the interesting findings from these studies, it became apparent that self-regulation is a very broad construct that incorporates personality traits and intellectual abilities. More recently, psychology associate professors, Elliot Tucker-Drob and Paige Harden expanded this focus in the Texas Twin Project. A twin-study was used because of its unique study design and focus on revealing the importance of genetic and environmental influences on academic achievement.

Under their direction, data was collected from over 1,000 twins between the ages of 8-14 years in an effort to examine the underlying factors of self-regulation with regards to observed difference in academic abilities. The study found that, even after accounting for processing speed and fluid intelligence, proficiency in math and reading was strongly linked to executive functioning. When compared to personality dimensions, the study revealed that children with higher executive function displayed more traits of openness than they did conscientiousness.

Outcomes and Impact

These findings have the potential to change the way we approach primary school education all together. Not only will the differences in student performance become normalized over time, and rather than promote rigid performance scoring traditions, educators will be in a better position to develop the necessary tools needed to identify and address educational problems with more efficiency and effectiveness.

References

Cherry, K. (2018). The big five personality traits. Retrieved January 10, 2019, from Very Well Mind: https://www.verywellmind.com/the-big-five-personality-dimensions-2795422

Eisenberg, N., Duckworth, A. L., Spinrad, T. L., & Valiente, C. (2014). Conscientiousness: Origins in childhood? Developmental Psychology, 50(5), 1331-1349. doi: 10.1037/a0030977.

Jain, S. (2018). Study shows academic performance is highly genetic. Retrieved January 27, 2019, from The Daily Texan: http://www.dailytexanonline.com/2018/09/24/study-shows-academic-performance-is-highly-genetic

Malanchini, M. L., Grotzinger, A. D., Harden, K. P., & Tucker-Drob, E. M. (2018). “Same but different”: Associations between multiple aspects of self-regulation, cognition, and academic abilities. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, doi: 10.1037/pspp0000224.

UT News. (2018). Intellectual curiosity and confidence help children take on math and reading. Retrieved January 10, 2019, from The University of Texas: https://news.utexas.edu/2018/12/19/intellectual-curiosity-and-confidence-help-children-take-on-math-and-reading/

Test Anxiety: Can Emotional Regulation Improve Your Grades?

Test Anxiety

It is common to feel anxious before taking a test and while some experience the harmless “butterflies in stomach” feeling, others are severely impacted. Statistics show that low-income students are less likely to complete four years of high school science in comparison to high-income students. This prevents students from low-income families to major in science at a post-secondary level which means that they are unable to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  

When looking at a midwestern high school, 40% of students from low-income families were assured to fail their biology course. They had internalized feelings of inadequacy which lead to high levels of anxiety prior to taking a test/exam. As a result of low self-esteem and anxiety, these students received poor grades.

Experimental Study

In previous studies, researchers found that reducing performance anxiety can improve test scores. Researcher Rozek and colleagues decided to carry out a study of their own at a large public high school in Illinois. At this high school, a little over half of low-income students fail their biology exams whereas only 6% of high-income students have failing grades. Rozek and colleagues took 1175 grade 9 biology students and placed them in four different groups. Of the 1175 students, 285 of them were from a low socioeconomic background.

Control group

Group 1: Told to ignore anxiety

Experimental groups

Group 2: Told to write about fears (method to clear headspace and focus on exam)

Group 3: Told to read a statement about the benefits of physiological responses to stress like a racing pulse or sweaty palms. (benefits include helping with attention)

Group 4: Told to write about fears and read statement

After writing the exams, it was found that of the 205 low-income students in the experimental groups (groups 2-4), 168 of them passed. However, only 49 out of 80 low-income students in the control group (group 1) passed.

To put it in context, 82% of low-income students placed in the experimental groups passed their exam compared to 61% of low-income students in the control group. On the other hand, students from high socioeconomic backgrounds were not affected by any of the interventions.

Conclusion

This study helped demonstrate that self-confidence and emotional regulation is an important factor when taking a test. A passing grade on an exam is not entirely based on knowledge of material, but on mind-set as well. One reason why the interventions did not affect students from high-income families is because they may be more proficient in emotional regulation when compared to students from low-income families. However, it is important to note that an interest in math and science is necessary for a student to pursue a STEM career. While improving test scores may not necessarily increase the rate of students in STEM, it at least gives them the opportunity to explore science and math subjects without feeling like they are set for failure.

References

C.S. Rozek et al. Reducing socioeconomic disparities in the STEM pipeline through student emotion regulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Published online the week of January 14, 2019. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1808589116.
https://www.sciencenews.org/article/easing-test-anxiety-boosts-low-income-students-biology-grades

Inherited Trauma: It Did Not Begin With You

What is Trauma?

If you were to look up the word trauma on WebMD, you would find “a serious physical injury.” While that may be the medical definition, trauma is much more than that. Trauma is an emotional response to a traumatic event and according to the Canadian Psychological Association, an event is considered traumatic if an individual “experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others. The person’s response must have also involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror.” But how do you explain your trauma symptoms if you have not personally gone through a traumatic event?

Epigenetics and Trauma  

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is comprised of 46 chromosomes- 23 from the mother and 23 from the father. Every human being has a unique genetic code which makes up their DNA sequence. While the genetic code rarely alters, modifications to gene expressions can occur through heritable changes. In simpler terms, genes can be switched on and off based on your ancestral environment and/or lifestyle.

In recent years, researchers have discovered that traumas experienced by earlier generations can be passed down through changes in DNA. Mark Wolynn, a leading expert on inherited family trauma, stated that it is typically traumas that have not been talked about or resolved that gets passed on to children. In an interview with Psychology Today, Wolynn mentioned one of his clients, a young woman who would cut herself so deeply that she would be hospitalized due to the large amount of blood loss. When asked what she thought about before piercing her skin with a sharp object, she said “I deserve to die.” This young woman had a good childhood and a healthy relationship with her parents. She did not hurt anyone nor did she witness anyone getting hurt (i.e. murder, suicide attempts). After much digging, it was found that her paternal grandparents were in a car accident due to her alcoholic grandmother driving into a telephone pole. Her grandmother survived but her grandfather bled to death before the ambulance arrived. While this event happened much before this young woman was born, it was rarely talked about in the family. Essentially, this young woman was cutting herself in connection to that traumatic event. She punished herself as a result of her grandmother’s actions (i.e. deserving to die) and connected with her grandfather through the blood loss.

Breaking the Cycle

The first step to breaking this trauma cycle is by linking your issues to the root cause. Once the root cause is identified, you can begin the process of healing. One method of healing is through Somatic Experiencing; a treatment method aimed at targeting symptoms that stem from mental and physical trauma. This form of therapy focuses on the client's perceived body sensations in order to address the physiology of trauma and stress. The awareness developed in somatic experiencing sessions helps to release physical tension that may remain after trauma or a traumatic event. If you feel anxious, scared, confused, guilty, or angry and you think it may be trauma related, click here for more information.

References

https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/       

https://cpa.ca/sections/traumaticstress/simplefacts/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/ethical-wisdom/201606/it-didnt-start-you-the-mystery-inherited-trauma

https://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/traces-of-genetic-trauma-can-be-tweaked/

Double the Dopamine: Why It’s So Hard to Control Your Cravings

Indulging in your favourite food is common during the holiday season and while your new year's resolution may have been to eat more healthy, a neurotransmitter called dopamine could be preventing you from doing that.

Dopamine is a pleasure chemical that plays a role in identifying and reinforcing rewarding/pleasurable experiences. Researchers at Max Planck Institute in Germany decided to use a positron-emission tomography (PET) technique to monitor the peaks of dopamine release while people ate palatable (pleasant tasting) and non-palatable (unpleasant tasting) food. This PET technique also helped identify the brain regions associated with the releases.

Twelve volunteers were given either a delicious milkshake or a tasteless solution while PET data was being recorded. As expected, dopamine was released when a volunteer ingested a milkshake however, researchers found that the neurochemical was actually released at two different times. The first is when you place food in your mouth while actively chewing and the second time is when the food reaches your stomach. The first release occurred in regions related to sensory perception and reward, whereas the second release involved regions associated with higher cognitive functions.

In addition, the craving/desire for a milkshake was connected to the amount of dopamine released. When a volunteer’s craving was high, the first jolt of dopamine would be high. Although more dopamine would be released initially, there would be a reduced amount of the pleasure chemical when the milkshake would reach the volunteer’s stomach.

The findings from this study supports the idea that the high from the food we crave outpaces the actual enjoyment we get from eating those foods. Essentially, the first couple bites you take from that delicious slice of pizza you crave will match your desire for it but as you continue eating, the amount of pleasure you get from that pizza slice will diminish.

Though this was a small study, it was the first time gut-induced dopamine release was demonstrated in humans. Similar experiments were done in the past with mice as the subjects however, results from this study are not conclusive and further research needs to be done. An important take-away from this study is that your willpower may be tested the next time you crave chocolate cake because with every craving comes two generous releases of dopamine.

References

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/12/181227111420.htm

Sharmili Edwin Thanarajah, Heiko Backes, Alexandra G. DiFeliceantonio, Kerstin Albus, Anna Lena Cremer, Ruth Hanssen, Rachel N. Lippert, Oliver A. Cornely, Dana M. Small, Jens C. Brüning, Marc Tittgemeyer. Food Intake Recruits Orosensory and Post-ingestive Dopaminergic Circuits to Affect Eating Desire in Humans. Cell Metabolism, 2018; DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2018.12.006

Childhood Poverty: Long Term Impact on the Developing Brain

Brain development is complex and varies from person to person. There are several factors that affect development and socioeconomic status may be one of them. Recently, U.S. researchers discovered that the brain areas responsible for language, learning, and emotional development were far more complex in children whose parents had a higher level of education and/or worked professional jobs compared to those with parents working manual labour jobs and/or having lower levels of education.

Based on hundreds of brain scans, The National Institute of Mental Health researchers found that the effects on brain development are stable from childhood to adolescence. This suggests that support in pre-school could be very helpful to children from low socioeconomic families. This support may help with an individual’s mental health, academic achievement, and overall reduce inequalities that may occur throughout their life.

Previous studies revealed connections between parental occupations and earnings with an increase in volume of the brain’s grey matter; a darker tissue in the brain that plays a role in seeing, hearing, speech, executive functions, memory, impulse control, and emotions.  However, a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience reviewed 1243 MRI scans from over 623 people between the ages of 5-25 and found that higher socioeconomic status in early childhood has a significant impact on the thalamus.

The thalamus is involved in transmission and processing of sensory information and the volume of the thalamus is closely correlated to verbal IQ and quick thinking. Therefore, the larger the volume, the more likely you may be a quick thinker and have a high verbal IQ. In this study, children from higher socioeconomic families were shown to have an areal expansion in the thalamic subregions.

There are many factors that play a role in early year development and although there appears to be a correlation between socioeconomic status and size/complexity of brain regions, the study does not prove that one causes the other. Correlation does not imply causation but this information allows us to have a better understanding of brain development in children.

References

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/childhood-poverty-brain-development-growing-up-links-economic-factors-a8698251.html


http://www.jneurosci.org/content/early/2018/12/26/JNEUROSCI.1808-18.2018

Social Media: An Addiction That Impacts Your Mental Health

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat. These are just a few of the most popular social media platforms used in Canada. According to the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), 74 percent of Canadians spend a minimum of 3-4 hours online per day. While this may not seem so bad, the effects of social media on your mental health suggest otherwise.

Activated Reward Center

The reward center in the brain is a group of neurological structures responsible for positive emotions, motivation, and pleasure. Part of the reward center is the nucleus accumbens; a brain structure that receives correspondence from the ventral tegmental area. The ventral tegmental area is one of the areas of the brain that produces dopamine, a chemical that plays a major role in reward-motivated behaviour.

As you scroll through your instagram feed, your brain’s reward center is being activated and dopamine is being released from your brain. In addition, you will feel a higher sense of pleasure when you receive likes and comments on your posts. The more likes and comments you get, the higher your reward. Just like drugs, social scrolling can become addictive which is damaging to your mental well being.

Loss of Sleep

Sleep is important for your physical health as it helps heal heart and blood vessels but it is equally as important for your mental health. Sleep helps with several brain functions, including the way neurons communicate with each other. It is also a way to remove toxins in the brain that build up from when you are awake.

Reading a book before bed used to be a very common practice but books are now replaced with smartphones. You might be thinking that scrolling through your twitter timeline before going to sleep is harmless, but did you know that your smartphone can actually make it harder for you to fall asleep? Studies have found that the blue light emitted from your smartphone reduces melatonin levels. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland and it plays a major role in regulating your sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin directly affects your sleep cycle which means that a lack of melatonin = lack of sleep.

Phantom Vibration Syndrome

Have you ever felt your phone vibrate even though it wasn’t? If so, you may be suffering from phantom vibration syndrome. Phantom vibration syndrome is a condition where an individual has a false perception that their cell phone is ringing and/or vibrating at a time that it is not. Essentially, when an individual is constantly using their phone or has their phone in their pocket, their nervous system becomes hypersensitive which is why they feel these non-existent vibrations.

Research shows that 9 out of 10 people suffer from Phantom Vibration Syndrome. While this is an alarming number, little research has been done on treating this condition.

Overall, social media is a powerful tool that helps connect people to one another but like most things in life, social media should be used in moderation. Scrolling through Instagram, Facebook and twitter on a daily basis may not seem like a big deal but the number of hours you spend on these apps can have severe effects on your mental health. Be smart by knowing when to put your smartphone down.

References

https://canadiansinternet.com/2018-social-media-use-canada/

https://blog.cognifit.com/nucleus-accumbens/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/rewired-the-psychology-technology/201305/phantom-pocket-vibration-syndrome

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/phantom-vibration-syndrome-up-to-90-per-cent-of-people-suffer-phenomenon-while-mobile-phone-is-in-a6804631.html

Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Symptoms, Cause and Treatment

You may know or have described someone as narcissistic but did you know that narcissism is not just a character trait but an actual personality disorder?

Personality disorders are characterized as behavioural patterns or inner experiences that vary from the norm of the individual’s culture. These patterns are stable and have a long duration which can lead to distress or impairment in work, social environments and more. These patterns are seen in two or more of the following:

  1. Cognition

  2. Affect

  3. Interpersonal functioning

  4. Impulse control

According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), narcissistic personality disorder is defined as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts.” In short, people with this disorder believe that they are the centre of attention because they think they play an important role in everyone’s lives.

Symptoms

The DSM-5 states nine symptoms for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) however, you must meet a minimum of five symptoms to be diagnosed with this disorder.

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)

  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

  3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)

  4. Requires excessive admiration

  5. Has a very strong sense of entitlement, e.g., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations

  6. Is exploitative of others, e.g., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends

  7. Lacks empathy, e.g., is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her

  9. Regularly shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

Cause

There is no definite cause for NPD, however theories surrounding possible causes exist. One theory in specific is the biopsychosocial model of causation. This model suggests that causes are due to biological, social and psychological factors. Ultimately, there is not one factor in particular that is responsible for NPD.

Biological factors: genetic makeup

Social factors: interactions during early development

Psychological factors: individual’s temperament shaped by the environment

Diagnosis and Treatment

Personality disorders like NPD must be diagnosed by a mental health professional (i.e. psychologist or psychiatrist). General practitioners are typically not trained to make this type of diagnosis. So while you may discuss your issues with your family doctor, they would need to refer you to a mental health professional. Further, it is important to note that the diagnosis does not require any invasive tests such as blood, urine, or genetic tests. The mental health professional will come to a conclusion after comparing your life history and symptoms with the symptoms listed above.

Personality disorders such as NPD are usually diagnosed in adulthood rather than during adolescence or childhood. This is because children/teens are still developing and maturing which means their personality may change as well. Though uncommon, some children or teens are diagnosed with NPD but their symptoms must have been stable for a minimum of 1 year.

Once diagnosed, treatment should be sought. Treatment usually involves long-term psychotherapy with an experienced therapist. In addition, medications may also be prescribed to help manage troubling symptoms.

References

http://www.psi.uba.ar/academica/carrerasdegrado/psicologia/sitios_catedras/practicas_profesionales/820_clinica_tr_personalidad_psicosis/material/dsm.pdf

https://psychcentral.com/disorders/narcissistic-personality-disorder/

Stress Vulnerability: Is it Harder to Cope with Stress Later in the Day?

We have all experienced stress, some days more than others, but did you know that you may be more vulnerable to stress at certain times of the day? A recent study conducted by medical physiologist, Dr. Yujiro Yamanaka and colleagues, found that the body’s central nervous system reacts less to physiological stress and releases fewer stress hormones in the evening when compared to the morning.

Research Study

For this study, 27 young and healthy volunteers were recruited. To ensure that no one was at an advantage/disadvantage, all volunteers had normal working hours and sleep habits. Dr. Yujiro Yamanaka and his colleagues investigated the participant’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis; a subsystem in the body that describes the interactions between the hypothalamus, pituitary glands and adrenal glands. It is known for its role in the body’s reaction to stress.  

A major stress hormone in humans is cortisol and it is released from the adrenal glands for several hours once the HPA axis is activated by a stressful event. This hormone provides the body with energy when faced with the need for fight or flight. Essentially, cortisol helps you deal with stressful situations and the brain’s circadian clock regulates cortisol levels.

To determine the baseline of the volunteer’s cortisol levels, researchers measured the participant’s diurnal rhythm of salivary cortisol levels. Diurnal rhythm is a biological rhythm that is in sync with a day/night cycle. Once the baselines were determined, the 27 volunteers were categorized into two groups:

Group 1: Stress test in the morning, 2 hours after participant’s normal waking time

Group 2: Stress test in the evening, 10 hours after participant’s normal waking time

The stress test was 15 minutes long and it involved preparing and delivering a presentation to 3 trained interviewers as well as performing mental math, all while being recorded. To measure cortisol levels, saliva samples were taken at 3 different times:

  1. Half an hour before the stress test

  2. Immediately after the stress test

  3. 10-minute intervals for another half hour after the test

Results

This research study found that participants who took the stress test in the morning had higher salivary cortisol levels, whereas those who took the stress test in the evening did not. While the salivary cortisol levels differed between the two groups, their heart rates (sympathetic nervous system indicator that responds to stress) weren’t affected by the period of time that the test was taken.  

Overall, researchers concluded that when a stressful situation takes place in the morning, the body can activate the HPA axis and sympathetic nervous system to help manage the stressful event. However, a stressful event taken place in the evening would only activate a response from the sympathetic nervous system (i.e. heart rate). While factors such as an individual’s biological clock needs to be taken into account, there is strong evidence suggesting that stress vulnerability is higher in the evening when compared to the morning.

References

https://psychcentral.com/news/2018/11/29/we-may-be-more-vulnerable-to-stress-in-the-evening/140802.html

https://www.integrativepro.com/Resources/Integrative-Blog/2016/The-HPA-Axis

Psychologists vs. Psychiatrists: Do You Know The Difference?

In recent years, advocacy and awareness for mental health has increased significantly. The importance of seeking mental health services has been emphasized now more than ever yet, many people do not know whether they should see a psychiatrist or a psychologist. In fact, the two professions are often thought of as the same when in reality, there are distinct differences.

Education

First and foremost, psychologists and psychiatrists have very different educational backgrounds. To become a psychologist, you must attend university and complete a 4 year undergraduate program. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, you would need to attend a 2 year master’s program in psychology before beginning a 4 year Ph.D/Psy.D program in clinical psychology. In Ontario, you must register with the College of Psychologists of Ontario after all of your course requirements and internships are complete. Once you have passed the licensing exam, you may begin to practice as a licensed clinical psychologist. Overall, it takes about 10 years to become a certified psychologist.

In contrast, you must attend medical school to become a psychiatrist. Once you have completed a 4 year undergraduate program, you would have to go to medical school for approximately 4 years to obtain a medical degree. Next, you are required to complete a residency program which is another 4 years. Typically, your residency would take place at a hospital setting in the psychiatric unit. Once your residency is complete, you must pass a provincial exam in order to become a licensed medical doctor. If you choose to have a subspecialty such as child psychiatry, forensic psychiatry, general psychiatry etc. then you may have to complete a 1-2 year fellowship. Overall, it takes approximately 12-14 years to become a certified psychiatrist.

Treatment

Psychologists and psychiatrists play an important role in mental health treatment. Both professionals study the human brain, feelings, thoughts, and emotions but their treatment methods are quite different.

A major difference between the two careers is prescriptive authority or the ability to prescribe medication. Since psychiatrists are trained medical doctors, they are able to prescribe medication whereas psychologists cannot. Psychiatrists often spend much of their time providing, monitoring, and adjusting medication to help manage their patient’s mental health disorders. In addition, you must get a referral from a family doctor before seeking treatment from a psychiatrist, whereas a referral is not always required to see a psychologist.

On the other hand, psychologists focus on different forms of therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), somatic experiencing, family therapy, play therapy, and other non-invasive therapies to treat their client’s emotional and mental suffering. Psychologists are trained to use psychological tests to observe, assess, and diagnose any issues with feeling, thinking, and behaviour. Only a psychologist can assess and diagnose learning disabilities. Psychologists often focus on writing reports for auto-insurance claims as well as assessments for accommodations in school and the work place.

Since both psychologists and psychiatrists play an active role in mental health treatment, they often work collaboratively. For instance, a psychologist may assess and diagnose an individual before referring them to a psychiatrist who will then prescribe/monitor medications. While it is not mandatory for an individual to go to both, it may be helpful and more efficient when addressing symptoms.

Cost

In Ontario, seeking treatment from a psychiatrist is free as it is covered by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP). Unfortunately, OHIP does not cover psychological services, but private health insurance or extended health care benefits may cover all if not, some services offered by a psychologist. Contact your insurance company to find out how much coverage you can receive.


Dr. Arnold Muller is a clinical psychologist at Neuropotential Clinics. He has 31 years of experience as a licensed psychologist in two countries and various settings. He holds two master’s degrees and one Ph.D with specialization in Psychotherapy. Dr. Muller specializes in different modalities of psychotherapy, but he is also experienced in psychological assessment, diagnosis, and treatment plan preparation and application. The population he serves includes individuals of all ages, couples, small groups, and families. If you are in search for an experienced psychologist, call Neuropotential Clinics today at 416-398-9991.

References

https://www.verywellmind.com/psychologists-vs-psychiatrists-what-is-the-difference-2795761

http://www.efpa.be/psychologist-psychiatrist.htm

https://settlement.org/ontario/health/mental-health-and-addiction/basics/where-can-i-get-help-with-my-mental-health/
https://www.cpa.ca/public/whatisapsychologist/

The Neurological Effects of Marijuana: What You Should Know Before Consuming Cannabis

On October 17th 2018, the sale and consumption of recreational marijuana was officially legalized in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, 42.5% of Canadians ages 15+ have consumed cannabis at least once in their lifetime. So while this is great news for many, it is important to understand what cannabis is and the neurological effects that it may have on you. Marijuana, commonly known as weed and/or pot, is a psychoactive drug derived from cannabis plants. Cannabis can be inhaled through smoke and vapors, ingested through edibles and capsules, sprayed and dissolved under the tongue (sublingual), and topically through bath salts, lotions, and oils. The three main types of cannabis plants include Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Indica, and Cannabis Ruderalis. Along with physical differences, the effects of each type of plant varies.

Cannabis Sativa

  • Appearance: Light green in colour, tall and thin, with narrow leaves

  • Effects: Causes a stimulating and uplifting effect (head buzz)

Cannabis Indica

  • Appearance: Dark green, short and thick, with wide leaves

  • Effects: Causes a body effect that is relaxing and calming

Cannabis Ruderalis

  • Appearance: Light and dark green, small size with fibrous stem and varied sized leaves

  • Effects: Minimal effect in its pure form, often used to form a hybrid of Sativa and Indica

How Does Cannabis Affect the Brain?

What many people do not know is that the key psychoactive component in cannabis is a cannabinoid called Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). When a person consumes marijuana, THC travels throughout a person’s brain and secures itself onto cannabinoid receptors across the brain. Ultimately, the THC pushes out endocannabinoids which causes a disruption in the regulation of the nervous system.

The following 8 brain structures are packed with cannabinoid receptors which make them vulnerable to THC.

1) Nucleus Accumbens

  • Function: Motivation and reward

  • THC effect: Euphoria

2) Cortical Structures

  • Function: Executive function, perception, movement

  • THC effect: Change in judgement, altered perception

3) Basal Ganglia

  • Function: Control of movement

  • THC effect: Slow reaction time

4) Hypothalamus

  • Function: Appetite, sexual activity

  • THC effect: increased appetite

5) Cerebellum

  • Function: Coordination

  • THC effect: Impaired coordination

6) Spinal Cord

  • Function: Pain signals

  • THC effect: Decreased pain sensitivity

7) Hippocampus

  • Function: Memory formation

  • THC effect: Impaired short term memory

8) Amygdala

  • Function: Emotional response, fear

  • THC effect: Paranoia, fear

In addition, there is a common misconception that marijuana is completely harmless and cannot be detrimental to your health. The National Institute of Drug Abuse states otherwise. Animal research along with human studies have provided a considerable amount of evidence that exposure to marijuana during development can cause long-term damage to the brain. These impairments may even be permanent, which is why you should not be consuming cannabis if you are under the age of 19 (unless prescribed by a medical doctor and used for medicinal purposes).

Outcomes and Impact

Now that you’ve learned a few things about cannabis, it is your job to spread this information with others. If you are over 19 years of age and are planning on consuming cannabis, please do so responsibly. We know that the basal ganglia, cortical structures, and cerebellum are all affected by cannabis. This means your perception and judgement may be altered, you may have a slow reaction time, and your coordination may be impaired. Therefore, if you consume cannabis, please do not operate a vehicle under any circumstance. Remember, you are not only risking your safety, but the safety of others as well.

Mindfulness: Do Mindful People Feel Less Pain?

Mindfulness vs. Pain Sensitivity

Have you ever wondered why some people feel pain more intensely than others? Are you one of those people who rarely ever feel pain? Well, researchers at Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina have found that mindfulness may be the reason behind this. According to the Canadian Medical Association, mindfulness is described as being able to attend to an experience such as a conversation, a clinical procedure or an administrative activity without being distracted, hurried or reactive in a way that compromises our understanding, decision making, caring and skillful actions. In simpler terms, it means to pay attention to the present moment without having a highly emotional reaction.

Fadel Zeidan, the study’s lead author and Assistant Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at Wake Forest School of Medicine, attempted to find out whether an individual’s innate mindfulness level was correlated with lower pain sensitivity. In addition, he sought to identify the brain mechanisms involved in lower pain sensitivity.

Research Study

The study involved 76 volunteers who were deemed as healthy individuals. To ensure that an accurate level of dispositional mindfulness was being measured, it was imperative that the volunteers never meditated before. Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory was used to measure each participant’s baseline mindfulness level. Once the baseline levels were determined, the volunteers underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while being administered with painful heat stimulation (120°F, 49°C).

From this experiment, whole brain analyses showed that administering painful heat stimulation to those with higher dispositional mindfulness had greater deactivation of the posterior cingulate cortex and experienced less pain. In contrast, participant’s who reported higher pain revealed greater activation of the posterior cingulate cortex. While there is uncertainty regarding the function of this brain region, the posterior cingulate cortex is a central node of the default mode network (DMN). The DMN is associated with mind-wandering as well as processing feelings of oneself. Essentially, the DMN deactivates when a task, such as reading or writing is being performed. It is then reactivated when a person puts an end to a task and returns to self-related thoughts, emotions, and feelings.

Outcomes and Impact

The data indicated that there was less activation in the posterior cingulate cortex of the DMN for people with higher dispositional mindfulness ratings, which allowed them to experience less pain. Those with lower dispositional mindfulness ratings had higher activation of the posterior cingulate cortex and felt more pain. Thus, lead author Fadel Zeidan stated that “mindful individuals are seemingly less caught up in the experience of pain, which was associated with lower pain reports."

Millions of people suffer from chronic pain and the information gathered from this study is quite useful as we can now target the posterior cingulate cortex for the development of pain therapies. Further, mindfulness can be taken into consideration when understanding why one feels more or less pain. If you or anyone you know suffers with chronic pain, consult a healthcare professional about mindfulness meditation.

References

Leech, R., Braga, R., & Sharp, D. J. (2012). Echoes of the Brain within the Posterior Cingulate Cortex. Journal of Neuroscience, 32(1), 215-222. doi:10.1523/jneurosci.3689-11.2012

https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-09-mindful-people-pain-mri-imaging.html?utm_source=tabs&utm_medium=link&utm_campaign=story-tabs

https://www.cma.ca/Assets/assets-library/document/en/practice-management-and-wellness/Mindfulness-sessions-Introduction-e.pdf

Living with Regret: An Inevitable Reality

Regrets and Self-Concept

The saying that life is a roller coaster ride is far from just a good analogy. In life, there are many highs and lows and usually, the lows are what we look back on. Whether it was a missed job opportunity, words you wish you could take back, or the “one that got away”, we always seem to have regrets.

Since regret is considered a universal emotion, researchers have taken a keen interest in understanding it. A recent study suggests that regret may be associated with an individual’s self-concept. Self-concept is defined as the individual's belief about himself or herself, including the person's attributes and who and what the self is (Baumeister, 1999). To grasp what your self-concept is, you may ask “do I have a clear understanding of who I am?” “Am I living up to the person I want to be?” and “am I living my life in a way where my responsibilities are being fulfilled?”

According to psychologist Edward Higgins, self-concept is composed of actual, ideal, and ought selves.

  • Actual Self: Representation of traits and qualities you believe you have.

  • Ideal Self: Representation of traits and qualities you would like to have.

  • Ought Self: Representation of traits and qualities you think you should have.

Based on the idea of self-concept, scientists hypothesized that long-lasting/detrimental regrets are likely caused by disparities between actual and ideal selves rather than actual and ought selves. In short, you are more likely to linger over things that could have been rather than what should have been. In addition, scientists suggested that your method of coping with regret affects the longevity of it. In specific, they believe that there is a more immediate response for coping efforts when you fail to live up to your “ought” self. However, failures catered to your “ideal” self are pushed aside and call for a less urgent response. Ultimately, these regrets have a more detrimental long-term effect in life.  

Research Study

To test out this hypothesis, scientists conducted six studies. In the first study, participants were asked if they regretted failing to live up to the person they would like to be (ideal self) more than failing to live up to the person they should be (ought self) and vice-versa. As predicted, participants experienced more regret when they failed to live up to their ideal self.

In the second and third study, participants were asked to think about specific regrets that held significance in their lives. After recalling their experience, they were asked to determine whether those regrets were ought-based or ideal-based. As predicted, those significant regrets that they recalled were more ideal-based, indicating that the participants were likely to regret failing to live up to their ideal selves.

The fourth and fifth study focused more on the second part of the scientists’ hypothesis. They had predicted that people take immediate action to cope with ought-related regrets whereas ideal-related regrets were put on the back burner. Again, their predictions came true as participants felt that ideal-related regrets could be handled at a later time whereas ought-related regrets required immediate psychological/behavioural repair. A factor that may play into this is the constant pressure and desire to be accepted by society.

The sixth and last study aimed to find the connection between regrets that were resolved and unresolved. Scientists researched whether the resolved/unresolved regrets were related to the participant’s ought selves or their ideal selves. In line with the other studies, it was found that regrets identified as ideal-related did not evoke coping efforts which is why individuals with those regrets tend to believe they are still unresolved. On the other hand, social pressures made participants feel the need to handle their ought-related regrets which is why participants were likely to perceive their regrets as resolved.

What This Means For Us

From this series of studies, we can conclude that living life without regret is next to impossible. Whether it has to do with your personal or professional life, it is natural to reflect and wonder what you could have or should have done differently if you were able to go back in time. What is important to take away from these studies are that not all regrets are the same. Based on the three categories of self-concept, regrets have differences in intensity and number. You can use this information to help reduce the weight of the regrets in your life. For example, if you are the type of person that prioritizes your responsibilities and obligations, then it would be best to think long and hard before making any decisions that could affect those around you. However, if you are defined more by your personal ideal, then you should make decisions that help you move closer to what you would like to have and/or who you would like to become. Remember, in order to minimize the intensity of your regrets, you have to first know who you are and what defines you.

Additional Resources

Baumeister, R. F. (1999). The nature and structure of the self: An overview. In R. Baumeister (Ed.), The self in social psychology (pp. 1-20). Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press (Taylor & Francis).

Davidai, S., & Gilovich, T. (2018). The ideal road not taken: The self-discrepancies involved in people's most enduring regrets. Emotion, 18, 439-452.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/ritual-and-the-brain/201805/why-you-feel-regret-and-what-you-can-do-about-it

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/darwins-subterranean-world/201809/the-psychology-what-if

Stimulating the Caudate Nucleus: Why the Glass May Seem Half Empty to You

The Caudate Nucleus

Have you ever felt like your judgement was being clouded by pessimism? Have you ever wondered why you focus on the downside of a situation rather than the upside? Well, researchers at MIT have recently found that stimulating a region of the brain known as the caudate nucleus, likely has an impact on your mood and the decisions that you make.

The caudate nucleus is located deep in the brain on both the right and left hemispheres. It is known to play a significant role in storing and processing memories but in recent years, it has been connected to emotional decision-making. Previously, a neural circuit was found to affect a type of decision-making known as approach-avoidance conflict. Approach-avoidance conflict is described as an element of stress where a situation/goal may seem appealing and unappealing at the same time. Therefore, there are both positive and negative feelings involved which ultimately becomes a conflict for a person making a decision.

Research: Putting Things Into Perspective

With approach-avoidance conflict in mind, researchers at MIT decided to run a test on animals. They stimulated the animal’s caudate nucleus with a compact electrical current and the animals were then given juice as their reward along with a puff of air to the face, acting as the negative stimuli. It is important to note that the ratio between the positive reward (juice) and the negative stimuli (puff of air) was different in each trial and the animals were given the opportunity to choose whether to accept the reward or not.

If the reward is seen as good enough to outweigh the negative stimuli, then the animals will accept the reward. However, if the ratio is too low and the reward is not seen as high enough, the animals will reject it. This is known as the cost-benefit calculation which was skewed once the researchers had stimulated the animals’ caudate nucleus. The animals avoided combinations that would have previously been accepted and this avoidance remained after the stimulation was terminated. The results imply that the value of the reward (juice) decreased and the cost of the unwanted stimuli (puff of air) was heavily focused on.

Discoveries and Next Steps

The researchers also discovered that the brainwave activity, specifically the beta frequency, changed within the caudate nucleus once decision-making patterns altered. Ultimately, electrical activity in the beta frequency may help indicate whether a patient will respond well to a drug treatment or not.

Though this is a big discovery, the next step is to see if the same effect will occur in humans. While the caudate nucleus is connected to the limbic system (system which plays a role in mood regulation) a lot more research needs to be done in order to confirm the caudate nucleus’ complete function.

Additional Resources

http://news.mit.edu/2018/neuroscientists-brain-caudate-nucleus-pessimism-decision-making-0809

https://www.sciencealert.com/we-found-the-brain-region-for-pessimism

https://www.healthline.com/human-body-maps/caudate-nucleus

Sleep Deprivation: Reasons Why You Might Have Social Withdrawal

Sleep and Social Isolation

Human beings are social beings. Regardless of whether you consider yourself an extrovert or an introvert, we as humans need social interaction to live a healthy life. In fact, studies have found that lack of social belonging may put you at risk of developing depression and even cardiovascular disease. In the past, there have been studies which indicate that people who are socially isolated do not get enough and/or good quality of sleep. However, the real question is, can an individual develop social withdrawal due to sleep loss?

Research Study

Post-Doctoral Fellow Eti Ben Simon and Scientist Matthew Walker from the University of California, Berkeley conducted two studies to find the answer to this question. The first study they conducted was purely online whereas the second study was a combination of online and in-person. For the first study, a total of 138 participants recorded their sleeping patterns for 2 nights and answered a questionnaire regarding loneliness and social behaviour. As for the second study, 18 participants were given a social distance task to complete. The social distance task involved the participant and the experimenter taking turns walking towards one another. The participant was then required to specify the moment they felt that the experimenter was at an uncomfortably close distance to them. Basically, the social distance task measured the participant’s desire to approach and be approached by an individual. While this task was done in person, there was also a computerized version of it which was completed by the participants as they underwent a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan.

The fMRI scan gave Simon and Walker the opportunity to observe activity differences in two different brain networks called the Theory of Mind Network and the Near Space Network. The Theory of Mind Network is associated with voluntary behaviours that benefit another person and/or group of people, whereas the Near Space Network is associated with personal space in respect to another person. In addition, the participants were asked questions on a variety of different topics and their answers were filmed. These videos were then shown to over 1000 online raters to judge the participants based on these three questions:

  • 1) Would you like to interact with the participant?

  • 2)  How lonely do you think the participant is?

  • 3) How lonely does the participant make you feel?

Outcomes and Impact

The results of this study are as follows:

  • 1) Social distancing behaviour increased when participants were sleep-deprived

  • 2) When participants were sleep-deprived, there was increased activity in the Near Space network (personal space) and decreased activity in the Theory of Mind network (prosocial behaviour). In simpler terms, the more sleep-deprived the participant was, the less likely they were to want to approach others or be approached.  

  • 3) Online raters were more likely to judge a sleep-deprived participant as being lonely and making others feel lonely. In addition, online raters expressed that they were less willing to interact with someone who appeared sleep deprived.

Simon and Walker’s experimental study clearly shows a positive correlation between sleep deprivation and social isolation. With this in mind, it is recommended that everyone gets a minimum of 7-8 hours of sleep per day to ensure a healthy and happy life.

If you are sleep deprived or struggle with sleep, Z-score Neurofeedback may be helpful for you. Click here to learn more about Z-score Neurofeedback.

References

Neurofeedback: An Underrated Form of ADHD Treatment

You have probably heard of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and chances are, you know someone who is diagnosed with it. This is because ADHD is the most prevalent mental health disorder affecting children in Canada (Centre of ADHD Awareness Canada). While ADHD is considered a complex genetic trait, there are three common symptoms that can easily be explained:

  • Inattention: Being unable to focus.

  • Hyperactivity: Excessive movement in an unfitting environment.

  • Impulsivity: Making rash decisions and acting hastily without any thought.

If left untreated, ADHD can negatively impact almost every aspect of an individual’s life. ADHD can contribute to several health problems including anxiety, chronic stress, and compulsive eating. Furthermore, a person with ADHD may feel a strong sense of underachievement as they may have a harder time concentrating in school and/or work. In addition, people with ADHD often feel a strain on the relationships in their life which can lead to loneliness.

While you may be thinking that there are medications available for treatment, users often undergo a lengthy trial and error process to find medication that best suits them. A recent survey conducted by ADDitude found that on average, an individual tries 2.7-3.5 medications before determining which one is right for them. However, not everyone is lucky enough to find a medication that works well. 34% of survey respondents reported that they stopped taking their medication altogether because of the side effects they were facing. Side effects include:

  • Loss of appetite experienced by 58% of children and 35% of adults surveyed

  • Irritability experienced by 34% of children and 24% of adults surveyed

  • Sleep disturbances experienced by 28% of children and 23% of adults surveyed

Taken from ADDitude special report on ADHD (2017)

Neurofeedback Training is another option to treat these symptoms. Neurofeedback is a form of behaviour therapy in which the parameters of a person’s brain-waves are monitored, recorded, and altered through visual and auditory rewards. It is a technique used to teach individuals how to self-regulate their brain functioning. Neurofeedback has been recognized as an effective method for reducing ADHD symptoms by the American Psychological Association yet, ADDitude’s research survey showed that only 5% of respondents used Neurofeedback training. 42% of adults and 30% of parents with children diagnosed with ADHD gave Neurofeedback a high rating. Ultimately, this means that while Neurofeedback may not be the most well known form of treatment, its effectiveness is still ranked highly when compared to other treatments. Click here to learn more about Neurofeedback and see if you or anyone you know may benefit from this treatment.

References

https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-treatment-options-caregivers-adults-survey-results/

https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/adhd/what-is-adhd

http://www.chadd.org/Understanding-ADHD/For-Adults/Living-with-ADHD-A-Lifespan-Disorder/Relationships-Social-Skills/Social-Skills-in-Adults-with-ADHD.aspx

https://www.helpguide.org/articles/add-adhd/adhd-attention-deficit-disorder-in-adults.htm

http://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/03/cover-feedback.aspx

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