Psychiatrists should take the lead in endorsing general wellness and encouraging healthy behaviors, says researcher James Hudziak. He suggests that opportunities to practice music, mindfulness, and exercise should be made available to all school children to increase brain health, and that more intensive efforts are necessary for children in families that are at risk for mood and behavioral difficulties or in children who show some dysfunction in these areas. Hudziak has implemented a statewide program in Vermont that encourages families to engage in these healthy practices.
Hudziak and colleagues analyzed brain scans of 232 children ages 6 to 18, looking for relationships between cortical thickness and musical training. They found that practicing an instrument such as the piano or violin increased working memory, gray matter volume in the brain, and the ability to screen out irrelevant noise. Practicing mindfulness increased white matter volume and reduced anxiety and depression. Exercise also increased brain volume and neuropsychological abilities.
Now Hudziak urges parents to advocate for the teaching of music, mindfulness, and exercise in schools as a way of improving general health, especially since music and gym are often the first programs to be cut when schools face budget shortages. Hudziak suggests that opportunities for athletics should be provided to all children, independent of their skill level, rather than only for the best athletes who “make the team.” Intramural teams should be open to all children, including those with less ability or minimal athletic skills. Exercise, teamwork, and friendships benefit all children.
For more information about the programs Hudziak implemented in Vermont, use the internet to search for the Vermont Family Based Approach, see his book Developmental Psychopathology and Wellness: Genetic and Environmental Influences, or call the University of Vermont Medical Center at (802)847-0000 or (800)358-1144.
Another tool that may be useful to parents of children aged 2 to 12 who are at risk for mood disorders is our Child Network, a secure online portal where parents can complete quick weekly ratings of their child’s mood and behavior, which is then graphed over time and can be used to show the child’s doctors how his or her symptoms are fluctuating and how well any treatment is working.
Exercise isn’t just good for the body—new research suggests it can improve cognition and normalize brain activity.
At the 2015 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, researcher Benjamin I. Goldstein reported that 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on a bike improved cognition and decreased hyperactivity in the medial prefrontal cortex in adolescents with and without bipolar disorder.
At the same meeting, researcher Danella M. Hafeman reported that offspring of parents with bipolar disorder who exercised more had lower levels of anxiety.
A plenary address by James J. Hudziak also suggested that exercise, practicing music, and mindfulness training all lead to improvements in brain function and should be an integral part of treatment for children at high risk for bipolar disorder and could be beneficial for all children.
Editor’s Note: Recognizing and responding to mood symptoms is key to the prevention and treatment of bipolar disorder in children and adolescents at high risk for the illness. For these young people, exercise, a nutritious diet, good sleep habits, and family psychoeducation about bipolar disorder symptoms may be a good place to start. Joining our Child Network may also be helpful.
Diet is important. A study of more than 20,000 mothers revealed that those with unhealthy diets had children with more externalizing disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder, and mania. Diets high in fat and sugar were linked to depression. The Nurses’ Health Study, a long-term epidemiological study of 50,000 women, showed that people who exercised more were less likely to be depressed, while lower muscle mass was associated with greater depression. Exercise also has anti-inflammatory effects.
Avoiding smoking has benefits, too. A study by Pasco and colleagues showed that people who smoke are at increased risk for a new onset of a mood disorder. Smoking is associated with onset of a more severe mood disorder earlier in life, suicide attempts, alcohol and substance abuse, and decreased response to treatment. Fortunately, quitting smoking can reverse some of these risks.
People with chronic fatigue syndrome, or myalgic encephalomyelitis, as it has also been called, suffer from extreme exhaustion and unrefreshing sleep. The condition has been considered mysterious, but new research is clarifying its symptoms and leading to more useful treatments. In 2015, a committee convened by the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences decided to change the name of the condition to systemic exertion intolerance disease (SEID) to better reflect its symptoms and reduce stigma around the illness.
In recent years it had been determined that exercise regimens and cognitive behavioral therapy helped up to 60% of patients. Some new small studies show great results when patients are treated with anti-viral medications such as valacyclovir (Valtrex). Researcher Theodore Henderson reports that he has seen response rates as high as 85% in adults and 92% in adolescents.
Researchers now believe that some patients diagnosed with depression may actually have SEID. Symptoms like fatigue, exertion-induced malaise, brain fog, and impaired academic performance could be the result of the body’s reaction to a virus.
In studies of rodents, running on a wheel reduces cocaine self-administration. A recent study by Richard de la Garza and colleagues investigated whether running or walking on a treadmill can reduce cocaine cravings and use in humans. In the study of 24 participants who had been using cocaine an average of 19.7 years, participants were randomized to run, walk, or sit for 30 minutes three times per week for four consecutive weeks. After exercising, the participants reported having less craving for cocaine. Fitness measures such as body weight and resting heart rate improved in both walkers and runners. While not statistically significant, by the end of the study there was a trend indicating that exercise improved abstinence from cocaine and decreased daily craving for cocaine.
Editor’s Note: Exercise Increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and neurogenesis. In rodents, cocaine is associated with decreases in BDNF in the frontal cortex, and injecting BDNF there decreases cocaine seeking. Whether this BDNF effect or the general effects of exercise on mood and conditioning account for these positive cocaine effects remains to be ascertained.
While past research on mood disorders has targeted structural and functional abnormalities in the brain, newer research has considered targets such as inflammation, metabolism, and cell resilience. Exercise can have positive effects on systems that regulate metabolism, immune function, and cellular respiration, and therefore improve affective and cognitive difficulties.
At the 2014 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, Mohammad Alsuwaidan presented a meta-analysis of the effects of exercise in mood disorders gleaned from English-language studies between 1966 and July 2008. Exercise increased brain norepinephrine, serotonin, and phenylethanolamine (PEA).
Alsuwaidan believes runner’s high, the feelings of euphoria people often experience after strenuous exercise, may not be linked to opiate (or endorphin) release, as most people believe, but instead to release of PEA or the cannabinoid anandamide, which activates CB 1 cannabinoid receptors, decreases GABA, and increases dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, the reward center of the brain.
Exercise also increases neurogenesis and the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which supports the growth of neurons and synapses. Marathon runners also have a post-race elevation in the anti-inflammatory cytokines IL-10 and IL-1Ra.
In people who are out of shape, exercise increases oxidative stress and other toxicities that do not occur with in those who exercise more regularly. Alsuwaidan extolls the benefits of high impact exercise five to seven times per week, and engaging a trainer to encourage exercise. Four minutes of intense exercise (such that you sweat and are not able to talk) is about equal to 45 minutes of mild exercise.
About a year ago we reported that exercise was recommended for patients with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. The case for exercise has been bolstered by a 2013 analysis published by the Cochrane Collaboration, a nonprofit research network. The authors reviewed five randomized clinical trials that compared resistance training with a control or another type of physical activity in a total of 219 women. Resistance training is exercise that is performed against resistance with the intention of improving muscle strength, and can include weights, resistance machines, or elastic resistance bands. The authors found that in the studies they analyzed, resistance training was both beneficial and safe for women with fibromyalgia, and that aerobic exercise helped reduce pain.
As reported in Medscape Medical News, lead author Angela Busch said, “It appears that people with fibromyalgia can benefit from this form of exercise, but we noted that the programs we examined involved supervised exercise and started low and gradually increased the resistance. There are particular health benefits associated with resistance exercise (e.g. increasing bone strength, which is important for preventing osteoporosis), so it is good to know that clinicians can safely [recommend] this form of exercise.”
Whether patients will widely accept this recommendation remains to be seen since some doctors have advised only rest. The key to avoiding pain exacerbation while adding an exercise regimen may be, like in much of medicine, to start slow.
Editor’s Note: The antidepressant milnacipran (Savella) is the most recent drug to receive Federal Drug Administration approval for the treatment of fibromyalgia. Pregabalin (Lyrica) and duloxetine (Cymbalta) were approved for fibromyalgia in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
Exercise increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that protects neurons and is important for learning and memory. In a study of mice who were trained to find objects, sedentary mice could not discriminate between familiar object locations and novel ones 24 hours after receiving weak training, while mice who had voluntarily taken part in exercise over a 3-week period could easily distinguish between these locations after the weak training.
Mice who received sodium butyrate (NaB) after training behaved similarly well to those who had exercised. Sodium butyrate is a histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitor, meaning it helps keep acetyl groups on histones, around which DNA is wrapped, making the DNA easier to transcribe. In this case the easy transcription of DNA enables learning under conditions in which it might not usually take place.
Both sodium butyrate and exercise promote learning through their effects on BDNF in the hippocampus. They make the DNA for BDNF easier to transcribe, suggesting that exercise can put the brain in a state of readiness to create new or more lasting memories.
New research shows that psychotherapy lowers the risk of relapse in unipolar major depression more than “treatment as usual” does, and also heads off depression in children at high risk.
At the 2013 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, researcher Pim Cuijpers reviewed 32 trials of cognitive behavior therapy, intensive behavioral therapy, and problem solving therapy used for the prevention of depression and found that these therapies were associated with a 21% lower risk of relapse compared to treatment as usual.
There were five critical elements that made these therapies useful: they supported coping with depression, and they included exercise, mindfulness, internet-based cognitive behavior therapy, and problem solving.
Among those who presented at the meeting, Greg Clarke of Kaiser Permanente, Oregon discussed an 8-week course on coping with stress given to a group of adolescents (aged 14 to 16) who had four times the normal risk of developing depression because each had a parent with depression. Clarke found a significant reduction in depression among the adolescents who received therapy compared to controls.
Insomnia can be a precursor to a first depression or to recurrent depression. Cognitive behavior therapy was more effective in improving sleep than a comparative sleep hygiene course.
Researcher Judy Garber presented data showing that cognitive behavior therapy was effective in 13- to 17-year-olds who had a parent with depression and had themselves had a prior depression or were currently sub-syndromal. The effect of the therapy was only significant if the parent was not depressed at intake.
Bicycling at speeds of 77–80 rpm seems to benefit patients with Parkinson’s disease. After neuroscientist Jay Alberts and one of his patients rode a tandem bicycle across Iowa to raise awareness of the illness, he noticed that her symptoms had improved. He had ridden in front, setting a pace that forced her to pedal faster. Their experience inspired the study, in which 26 patients with Parkinson’s were assigned to either ride a stationary bike at their own pace, or ride at a forced rate, where a trainer in the front seat of a tandem bicycle controlled the pedaling rate, which was at least 30% faster than the voluntary rates. After 8 weeks of thrice-weekly pedaling, the forced-rate group saw a 35% improvement in symptoms, compared to no improvement in the voluntary-rate group.
Study authors used functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (fcMRI) to measure levels of blood oxygen in the brain before, immediately after, and 4 weeks after the 8 weeks of exercise therapy. In the fast pedaling group, task-related connectivity between the primary motor cortex and the posterior part of the thalamus improved. Some cortical regions in the brain showed less activity, suggesting that Parkinsons’ patients who usually must use these areas to compensate for their motor deficits required less of this alternative brain activity after the exercise therapy. The research was presented at the Radiological Society of America’s annual meeting in 2012.