Stories about: mental health

A surprising new link between inflammation and mental illness — and a potential drug to protect the brain

A synapse being attacked by microglia, which causes neuropsychiatric symptoms in lupus
In the brain, a synapse (red – see diagonal “spine” across center of photo) is seen being wrapped around and attacked by immune cells called microglia (green), leading to synapse loss. Credit: Carroll lab / Boston Children’s Hospital

Up to 75 percent of patients with systemic lupus erythematosus — an incurable autoimmune disease commonly known as “lupus” —  experience neuropsychiatric symptoms.  But so far, our understanding of the mechanisms underlying lupus’ effects on the brain has remained murky.

“In general, lupus patients commonly have a broad range of neuropsychiatric symptoms, including anxiety, depression, headaches, seizures, even psychosis,” says Allison Bialas, PhD, a research fellow working in the lab of Michael Carroll, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital. “But their cause has not been clear — for a long time it wasn’t even appreciated that these were symptoms of the disease.”

Collectively, lupus’ neuropsychatric symptoms are known as central nervous system (CNS) lupus. Their cause has been unclear until now.

Perhaps, Bialas thought, changes in the immune systems of lupus patients were directly causing these symptoms from a pathological standpoint. Working with Carroll and other members of his lab, Bialas started out with a simple question, and soon, made a surprising finding – one that points to a potential new drug for protecting the brain from the neuropsychiatric effects of lupus and other diseases. The team has published its findings in Nature.

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Crisis Care: A unique suicide prevention app

 

More than 100,000 smartphone apps are currently categorized as “health apps.” There are apps for physical health—apps that log work-outs, track nutritional intake, and monitor sleeping patterns. And there are apps for mental health—apps that identify your mood, guide meditation and alleviate depression. But can an app tackle a public health problem as serious as teen suicide?

Turns out, mobile phones and suicide prevention may not be such strange bedfellows.

Elizabeth Wharff, PhD, and Kimberly O’Brien, PhD, clinician-researchers from the Department of Psychiatry at Boston Children’s Hospital, specialize in working with adolescents who struggle with suicidal thoughts. Noting that teens are already turning to their phones whenever they need something, they believe a mobile app may be the perfect platform to support them through tough times. Wharff feels that existing apps designed to help with depression and anxiety lack something crucial: parent mode.

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Bringing gaming to mental health: My one-minute pitch at SXSW

Neuro'motion cofounders (L-R): Gonzalez-Heydrich, Kahn, Ducharme
Neuro’motion cofounders (L-R): Gonzalez-Heydrich, Kahn, Ducharme

Jason Kahn, PhD, is a co-founder of Neuro’motion, a research associate at Boston Children’s Hospital, and a part-time instructor at Harvard Medical School.

Earlier this month, I traveled to SXSW Interactive 2015 to introduce my company, Neuro’motion. We build mobile video games and toys to build emotional strength in children, improve access to mental health care and provide a drug-free alternative for behavioral health. We were born from research at Boston Children’s Hospital and our mission is to get our games into as many people’s hands as possible.

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Who is most at risk for PTSD after trauma? Lessons from the Boston Marathon bombings

PTSD risk in adolescents after Boston Marathon bombingsDaniel Busso, MSc, is a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a researcher in the Sheridan Laboratory at Boston Children’s Hospital.

More than 60 percent of teenagers have experienced a traumatic event in their lifetime, but only a minority will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For both researchers and clinicians, this raises an important question: Why are some youth at greater risk for mental health problems after trauma? As our lab reports in two recent studies, conducted after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, the answer may lie in our neurobiology.

PTSD, which includes intrusive memories, increased anxiety and difficulty concentrating or sleeping, has been linked to a variety of psychosocial and biological risk factors, such as prior experiences of trauma or a history of mental health problems. Other studies suggest that disruptions to the body’s stress response system, or in patterns of brain activity when responding to threat, may predispose people to the disorder.

However, a common problem in this research is that biological and mental health data are collected only once, usually long after the traumatic event itself,

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Promoting global child mental health

Ibeziako,PatriciaPatricia Ibeziako, MD, directs the Boston Children’s Hospital Global Partnerships for Psychiatry Observership Program and the Psychiatry Consultation Service at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Children and adolescents constitute almost a third of the world’s population—2.2 billion individuals—and almost 90 percent live in low-income and middle-income countries, where they form up to half of the population. Yet, for many years, child mental health has largely been glossed over—with long-term negative effects on educational attainment in addition to chronic disability and lost productivity.

Major international non-governmental organizations and United Nations agencies work in settings where children are at risk for mental health difficulties. However, with the exception of the World Health Organization (WHO), these agencies often fail to acknowledge or focus on child mental health issues. In 2005, the WHO Atlas of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Resources reported that less than one third of 66 countries surveyed had an entity with sole responsibility for child mental health programming, and that national budgets rarely had identifiable funding for child mental health services.

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Sobering ADHD findings suggest: Stay in treatment

(leesean-Flickr)
(leesean-Flickr)

There’s a widespread view that attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is grossly over-treated in kids, especially boys, and will eventually be outgrown. But the results of the first large, long-term population-based study, published recently in Pediatrics, suggest that couldn’t be further from the truth.

While other studies have indicated dire outcomes when children with ADHD grow up, most of these have been small and have focused on the severe end of the spectrum—for instance, boys referred to psychiatric treatment facilities. This new study, started at the Mayo Clinic and led by William Barbaresi, MD, looked at the general population of kids with ADHD and found a greater likelihood of their having other psychiatric disorders as adults, doing jail time or committing suicide.

“Only 37.5 percent of the children we contacted as adults were free of these really worrisome outcomes,” says Barbaresi, now at Boston Children’s Hospital. “That’s a sobering statistic that speaks to the need to greatly improve the long-term treatment of children with ADHD and provide a mechanism for treating them as adults.”

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Redesigning behavioral health care: The time is now

(TheReapersApprentice/deviantART)

Richard Antonelli, MD, is a primary care pediatrician and medical director of Integrated Care and Physician Relations and Outreach at Boston Children’s Hospital.  He also co-chairs the Task Force on Care Coordination for Children with Behavioral Health Needs, a group within the Massachusetts Child Health Quality Coalition. Laura Chandhok, MPH, Physician Partnership Liaison at Boston Children’s Hospital, contributed to this post.

The recent shootings in Newtown, Conn., have revived the long-standing debate about gun control in the United States and rightly put a spotlight on media and video-game violence. Importantly, this tragic event has also raised questions about the adequacy of our nation’s behavioral health system and whether troubled children, adolescents and their families have access to needed diagnostic and management services.

These questions aren’t new. And as care delivery models evolve in response to the demands for better care at lower costs, we have an opportunity to improve our behavioral health services.

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Delivering psychiatric care in the ED: Keeping adolescents in crisis out of limbo

Suicidal teens who come to the emergency room for help are often kept there until an inpatient bed becomes available, which can take hours or days. Elizabeth Wharff is changing the standard of care by providing family-based psychiatric treatment right in the ED.

When teenagers come to an emergency department expressing suicidal thoughts or after a suicide attempt, the accepted model of care is to evaluate, then either send them home or keep them in the ED until an inpatient psychiatric bed becomes available.

The wait for an inpatient bed can take hours, even days. No psychiatric treatment is given. The child is simply “boarded” – kept waiting in the ED under supervision, a practice that can increase distress for the child and family, while taking ED beds out of circulation for other acutely ill patients.

“Generally speaking, there is no history of providing psychiatric treatment in the emergency room setting,” says Elizabeth Wharff, director of the Emergency Psychiatry Service at Children’s Hospital Boston. “Since the late 1990s, we have seen a significant increase in the number of cases where an adolescent comes to our emergency room with suicidality and needs inpatient care, but there are no available psychiatric beds anywhere in the area.”

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The brain whisperer: Tracking EEG footprints of autism and mental illness

EEG signals may reflect underlying brain connectivity patterns in autism. This brain has less dense local clusters linked by long-range connections, which may represent a normal pattern. The brain at right has denser, more uniform local connectivity with fewer long-distance connections in some regions.

Bill Bosl is used to looking for patterns. A computer scientist trained in atmospheric physics, geophysics and mathematics, he’s invented a method for computing properties of porous materials from CT scans. At the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, he worked on remote sensing problems, reading complex wave patterns to discern the location of groundwater, oil deposits and fault lines.

Today, he’s trying to measure thought – to compute what’s going on in hard-to-understand disorders like autism, which is currently diagnosed purely on the basis of behavior.  “The mathematical methods are very similar,” he says. “You’re analyzing waves.”

The waves in this case are electroencephalograms (EEGs), those squiggly lines generated by electrical activity in the brain. In autism,

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