News Round-Up: May 2011 2nd Edition

  • Have they found a happiness gene? A headline in the media suggests that a happiness gene has been discovered. However I think this is an oversimplification of a complex phenomenon. First of all the researchers have surveyed 2500 adolescents in the USA and assessed their satisfaction with life. They then sampled their serotonin genes (5HTT) and divided these into the long and short forms of the genes. The longer allele of the gene results in more receptors in the neurons and is described as being more ‘efficient’. They found a large increase in satisfaction with life in those with the long form of the gene compared to those with the shortened form. Since serotonin is associated with mood, there is a justification for looking at the relationship between satisfaction and serotonin genes. However there are at least two caveats to these conclusions. The first is that this study has been undertaken in adolescents in the Unite d States and it would be interesting to see if these results vary across age groups.  The second point is to look at what role the environment is playing in this. For instance there is a relationship between economic factors and ‘happiness’ in previous studies (although slightly more complex than would be expected) and so it would be interesting to see how economic variations in the environment influence these results as well as other factors which influence the social milieu.
  • ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy’ is a new book by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen (see reviews here, here, here, here, here and here). Baron-Cohen presents an important hypothesis in which he reframes several personality disorders as  being primarily disorders of empathy. This hypothesis has a number of important implications particularly in terms of how services might relate to people with these personality disorder labels. Given the implications for society this book offers an important step forward in opening up a wider debate on how society might reframe this relationship.  However Baron-Cohen also looks at the concept of evil and gives examples whilst suggesting that this concept can also be understood in terms of empathy. However this is slightly more complicated and several of the reviewers above have focused on these arguments rather than the personality disorder issues. With the preparation for DSM-V there may be a case for a more pressing discussion of the reinterpretation of personality disorders such as narcissistic, borderline and antisocial personality disorder in the relevant forums.
  • The authors of a recent meta-analysis concluded that there was no significant relationship between common alleles of the DISC1 (Disrupted in Schizophrenia 1) gene and Schizophrenia.
  • Decreased physical activity was significantly correlated with physical health quality of life in one small study comparing people with Schizophrenia with a control group.
  • The author of a review of evidence of ECT in Schizophrenia concluded that catatonic symptoms were the most responsive. While the response of catatonic symptoms to ECT is well established the author also identified a hierarchy of symptom responsiveness on the basis of the review.

Evolutionary Psychiatry

  • Right-handedness is likely to be at least 400,000 years old. An analysis of fossil teeth from 400,000 year old hominid specimens in Spain suggests that they were most likely predominantly right-handed. The pattern of wear on the teeth indicated the most likely direction in which the tooth moved against the food and in turn the hand that was likely used for feeding. These hominids are thought to represent Homo Heidelbergensis. Recent evidence suggests that they are the common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals. The researchers also looked at European Neanderthal specimens and found similar evidence for right-handedness. While the researchers focused on the evidence for handedness, the significance of this is two-fold. Firstly there is an argument that asymmetry within the brain is necessary for language. The second is that Schizophrenia may arise as a result of inteference with the development patterns of asymmetry in the brain which is a theory developed by Professor Tim Crow (see review here).  These findings could provide the first evidence that another species Homo Heidelbergensis had developed language as well as the possibility that some members may have been affected by Schizophrenia (assuming aberrant neurodevelopmental processes) in Europe as far back as 400,000 years ago.
  • A research group from St Andrews in Scotland observed Chimpanzees in Uganda and concluded that Chimpanzees were using at least 66 gestures to communicate with each other. The use of gestures is thought to be an important step in the development of spoken language.

Index: An index of the site can be found here. The page contains links to all of the articles in the blog in chronological order. Twitter: You can follow ‘The Amazing World of Psychiatry’ Twitter by clicking on this link. Podcast: You can listen to this post on Odiogo by clicking on this link (there may be a small delay between publishing of the blog article and the availability of the podcast). It is available for a limited period. TAWOP Channel: You can follow the TAWOP Channel on YouTube by clicking on this link. Responses: If you have any comments, you can leave them below or alternatively e-mail Disclaimer: The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.

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