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When you understand how neural pathways are created in the brain, you get a front row seat for truly comprehending how to let go of habits. Neural pathways are like superhighways of nerve cells that transmit messages. You travel over the superhighway many times, and the pathway becomes more and more solid. You may go to a specific food or cigarettes for comfort over and over, and that forms a brain pathway. The hopeful fact, however, is that the brain is always changing and you can forge new pathways and create new habits. That’s called the neuroplasticity of the brain. Read more ...

OUR POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE beliefs not only impact our health but also every aspect of our life. Henry Ford was right about the efficiency of assembly lines, and he was right about the power of the mind: “If you believe you can or if you believe you can’t . . . you’re right.” Think about the implications of the man who blithely drank the bacteria that medicine had decided caused cholera. Consider the people who walk across coals without getting burned. If they wobble in the steadfastness of their belief that they can do it, they wind up with burned feet. Your beliefs act like filters on a camera, changing how you see the world. And your biology adapts to those beliefs. When we truly recognize that our beliefs are that powerful, we hold the key to freedom. While we cannot readily change the codes of our genetic blueprints, we can change our minds and, in the process, switch the blueprints used to express our genetic potential. In my lectures I provide two sets of plastic filters, one red and one green. Read more ...

Scientific papers tend to be loaded with statistics and jargon, so it’s always a delightful surprise to stumble on a nugget of poetry in an otherwise technical report. So it was with a 2005 paper in the journal Development and Psychopathology, drily titled “Biological sensitivity to context.” The authors of the research paper, human development specialists Bruce Ellis of the University of Arizona and W. Thomas Boyce of Berkeley, borrowed a bit of Swedish idiom to name a startling new concept in genetics and child development: orkidebarn which means “orchid child,” and it stands in contrast to maskrosbarn, or “dandelion child.” As Ellis and Boyce explained in their 2005 paper, dandelion children seem to have the capacity to survive—even thrive—in whatever circumstances they encounter. They are psychologically resilient. Orchid children, by contrast, are highly sensitive to their environment, especially to the quality of parenting they receive. If neglected, orchid children promptly wither—but if they are nurtured, they not only survive but flourish. In the authors’ poetic language, an orchid child becomes “a flower of unusual delicacy and beauty.”

Inside the small world of scientists who study genetics and child development, the notion of the orchid child was stunning. The idea of resilient children was hardly new; nor was the related idea that some kids are especially vulnerable to the stresses of their world. What was novel here was the idea that some of the vulnerable, highly reactive children—the orchid children—had the capacity for both withering and thriving. It appeared these children were highly sensitive to home and family life, for better or worse. Is it possible, scientists wondered, that there are genes underlying this double-edged childhood sensitivity?

The 2005 paper* launched a search for those genes—and for the risk pathways that might lead to bad outcomes like delinquency, substance abuse, and mental illness. Most of the work initially focused on what behavioural geneticists call the “usual suspects”—and it paid off. Studies soon showed that genes linked to a particular enzyme or brain chemical receptor, if combined with family stress or maltreatment, can lead to a slew of behavioural problems or to mood disorders. These links have now been verified again and again, and scientists are searching for additional genes that might play a role in this exquisite childhood sensitivity.

But where to look? Well, if one is looking for genes that might be linked to unhappy lives, why not consider heavy drinking? That was the reasoning of behavioural geneticist Danielle Dick of Virginia Commonwealth University who, with 13 other scientists from around the world, has been exploring a gene called CHRM2. CHRM2 has already been implicated in alcohol dependence, which is in the same family of disruptive behaviours as childhood conduct disorders and anti-social behaviour. What’s more, the gene codes for a chemical receptor involved in many brain functions, like learning and memory, so it’s plausible that the gene might play a role in behavioural disorders. Dick and her colleagues decided to test the idea.

They took DNA samples from a group of more than 400 boys and girls who have been part of a larger child development study since before kindergarten, and analysed variations in their CHRM2 gene. These kids did not have behavioural problems at the start; they were a representative sample from communities in three U.S. cities. The kids have been studied every year since kindergarten, and were around age 17 at the time of this study. The scientists collected information on the teenagers’ misbehaviour–delinquency, aggression, drug abuse—from both the mothers and the kids themselves. They also asked the kids how much their parents knew about their lives—their whereabouts, who they hung out with, what they did with their time, how they spent their money, and so forth. They wanted to get a general idea of how closely these kids were monitored by their parents in their daily comings and goings—as a way of measuring nurturance or indifference or neglect. Read more ...

THE amount of time Lucian Tan, 21, spends fretting about social interactions and studying bemuses his friends; but it is likely a good portion of his peers spend just as much time worrying as he does.

A survey from Macquarie University's centre for emotional health, which asked people about their everyday worries, found more than 80 per cent of the 282 respondents under 30 worried moderately to a lot about work or study.

More than half worried about social interactions, and nearly 70 per cent stressed about their image, including looks and achievements. Those aged between 45 and 59 worried the least about image - of the 296 participants in that group, about half worried about it moderately or more.

''I feel worry has become a part of my daily experience,'' said Mr Tan, who is studying for a double degree in arts and law at the University of Sydney. ''I think all of us worry about future and career and how to get there but my friends studying things like commerce and business, for example, are more worried about where to get a job, rather than how.''

Generally, the survey found under-30s were more self-interested while those age 60 or over were more concerned about societal issues including war, climate change and the government. Under-30s worried about relationships the most, while the nearly 100 surveyed aged 60 or above worried about that the least.

Mr Tan's own experience reflected the results - he was concerned about offending people or saying the wrong thing. Organising social events and waiting for responses also caused anxiety. ''So I worry about things where I don't have much control, where you rely on the responses of other people,'' he said.

When it came to health and fitness concerns, those under 30 worried as much as those over 60, at 68 per cent and 62 per cent respectively. But Jennifer Hudson, an associate professor in Macquarie's University's department of psychology said: ''Post-puberty, from around 13-plus, is when you get a real spike in anxiety problems. But it does tend to stay relatively stable throughout life and it's remarkable that there is such a high proportion of the population who are worrying.'' She said further study needed to be done in the over-60 age group, which had been ''neglected''.

AUSTRALIANS spend more time worrying about work than war, the environment, politics or any other broader issue. In the first major study of the everyday worries of Australians, researchers from Macquarie University found ''future career'' concerns created the greatest anxiety for both men and women, while fear about ''the future'' and ''achievements'' also ranked in the top five.

Researchers from the psychology department found it surprising that matters dominating the media, such as climate change and politics, were not at the forefront of people's minds. ''Worries were much more personal, and at high levels that people said affected their lives and their health,'' said Associate Professor Jennifer Hudson, from the Centre for Emotional Health. 'A lot of people tended to worry about work, social interactions, their appearance and those sorts of areas.''

People were asked in an online survey about their level of worry across categories including health, society, work and relationships. More than 60 per cent of the 791 women said work and study worried them ''moderately'' to ''a lot''. The figures were slightly higher for the 287 men who responded, at about 70 per cent.

Of respondents under 30, more than 80 per cent worried about work and study moderately to a lot and about a third said it affected sleep, mood and physical health. When quality of life was affected, Professor Hudson said, anxiety became a disorder, leading her to believe clinical anxiety was under-diagnosed.

Worries about weight ranked highly for women only. That was not surprising, given the cultural obsession with the appearance of women, Professor Hudson said. ''But it is really alarming that 60 per cent of women said they worried about appearance at levels that interfered with their quality of life. ''The executive director of The Australia Institute, Richard Denniss, said the results reflected the think-tank's research that career and getting ahead were key concerns of those between 28 and 35. Read more ...

Being raised in poverty can have lifelong negative effects on children’s health, increasing their risk of chronic disease in adulthood. But new research suggests one factor that may help protect poor kids from later illness: having a nurturing mother.

Growing up poor is stressful, and chronic stress is known to impact physical health long term. Research finds that poor kids are more likely to develop metabolic syndrome — a collection of risk factors that may lead to Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke — compared with their wealthier peers, for example.

Unless they have an especially nurturing mother, that is. “If children had lots of maternal warmth, in terms of metabolic syndrome risk, [they looked like they] grew up in households where both parents had advanced degrees,” says study author Gregory Miller, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Canada, using educational attainment as a marker of high social class.

The study examined a sample of 1,215 middle-aged Americans who were part of a larger ongoing research project. The researchers determined participants’ socioeconomic backgrounds based on their parents’ education level and used questionnaires to gauge how nurturing those parents were in childhood.

Overall, kids who grew up poor were 40% more likely to have metabolic syndrome in adulthood — which includes high blood pressure, glucose intolerance and extra fat around the middle — than more privileged children. That elevated risk remained even in poor children who grew up to complete college and raise their socioeconomic status.

But when the effect of parental care was taken into account, the researchers found that the excess risk disappeared. Children who were raised in low-educated families, but whose mothers were nurturing, were no more likely to have metabolic syndrome than kids whose parents had four-year college degrees.

“The true value in this study is the demonstration of the capacity of positive relational characteristics to buffer the known impact of adverse experiences on the developing child,” says Dr. Bruce Perry, a senior fellow of the Child Trauma Academy, who was not associated with the study. Read more...

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression that occurs primarily during the winter months when a lack of sun disrupts the body's circadian and serotonin cycles. Its symptoms are much the same as those for clinical depression: feeling irritable or hopeless, tired, withdrawn and unable to focus. Exposure to light can help you feel better. Read more ...

Brain scans of former drinkers reveal that alcohol damages brain areas key to impulse control, making it harder to stop. Read more ...