TIME Mental Health/Psychology

The Part of Your Brain That Senses Dread Has Been Discovered

This tiny part of your brain tracks bad experiences

A tiny part of the brain can keep track of your expectations about negative experiences—and predict when you will react to an event—researchers at University College London say.

The brain structure, known as the habenula, activates in response to negative events such as electric shocks, and they may help people learn from bad experiences.

The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, marks the first time this association has been proven in humans. Earlier studies showed that the habenula causes animals to avoid negative stimuli by suppressing dopamine, a brain chemical that drives motivation.

In this study, investigators showed 23 people random sequences of pictures followed by a set of good or bad outcomes (an electric shock, losing money, winning money, or neutral). The volunteers were asked to occasionally press a button to show they were paying attention, and researchers scanned their brains for habenula activity using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. Images were taken at high resolution because the habenula is so small—half the size of a pea.

When people saw pictures associated with painful electric shocks, the habenula activated, while it did not for pictures that predicted winning money.

“Fascinatingly, people were slower to press the button when the picture was associated with getting shocked, even though their response had no bearing on the outcome,” lead author Rebecca Lawson from the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, said in a statement. “Furthermore, the slower people responded, the more reliably their habenula tracked associations with shocks. This demonstrates a crucial link between the habenula and motivated behavior, which may be the result of dopamine suppression.”

The study also showed that the habenula responds more the worse an experience is predicted to be. For example, researchers said the habenula responds much more strongly when an electric shock is certain than when it is unlikely to happen. This means that your brain can tell how bad an event will be before it occurs.

The habenula has been linked to depression, and this study shows how it could play a part in symptoms such low motivation, focusing on negative experiences and pessimism in general. Researchers said that understanding the habenula could potentially help them develop new ways of treating depression.

TIME Breast Cancer

Promising Cancer Drug Fails to Slow Breast Cancer

NEXAVAR
Nexavar Bayer Pharmaceuticals Corporation

Researchers had hoped to add breast cancer to the list of cancers for which the drug is already approved

A Phase 3 trial of cancer drug Nexavar in patients with advanced breast cancer failed to delay progression of the disease, according to the drug’s makers, Bayer and Onyx Pharmaceuticals, Inc., an Amgen subsidiary.

The study, called Reslience, evaluated Nexavar in combination with capecitabine, an oral chemotherapeutic agent, in patients with HER2-negative breast cancer.

The drug is approved to treat certain types of liver, kidney and thyroid cancer and works by targeting signalling pathways that tumor cells use to survive. Researchers hoped that Nexavar would have the same tumor-stalling effect on breast growths.

“We are disappointed that the trial did not show an improvement in progression-free survival in patients with advanced breast cancer,” Dr. Joerg Moeller, Member of the Bayer HealthCare Executive Committee and Head of Global Development, said in a statement. “While the primary endpoint of this trial was not met, the trial results do not affect the currently approved indications for Nexavar. We would like to thank the patients and the study investigators for their contributions and participation in this study.”

Data from the study will be presented at an upcoming scientific conference.

TIME Music

Hear YouTube Superstar Troye Sivan’s Single ‘Happy Little Pill’

EMI Australia

His EP drops Aug. 15 — and pre-orders have already buoyed it to the top of the charts

One of YouTube’s biggest stars may be on his way to becoming the next big pop act.

Troye Sivan, a 19-year-old from Australia, is one of the video blogging community’s most beloved personalities; his YouTube channel has more than 3 million followers and his clips have accumulated 91.4 million views. (No big.) Earlier this summer, Sivan announced he’d signed a deal with EMI Australia and would release an EP, titled TRXYE, on Aug. 15. “Happy Little Pill,” the first single from the five-track set, dropped earlier this week — and it seems primed to move the teen into the big leagues, with melancholy lyrics and a downtempo electronic sound that give off a world-weary vibe.

“I wrote this song during a bit of a rough time for someone super close to me, and for myself, and it still means as much to me as the day i wrote it, and i’m still as in love with it as the day i wrote it,” the singer wrote on his Tumblr, when he shared the song with fans.

Now, the EP is No. 1 on iTunes and has soared to the top of iTunes charts all over the world. Earlier today, the star tweeted that TRXYE had hit No. 1 in 17 countries, while “Happy Little Pill” was at No. 1 in 13 countries. (Again, no big.)

Sivan isn’t new to singing — he was performing on shows like StarSearch in the early 2000s and has created other EPs in the past — but his crazy popularity suggests the teen is ready for the big leagues and testifies to the mounting influence of YouTube celebrities. Given, too, the massive success of his earlier song “The Fault in Our Stars” (inspired by the film), Sivan seems ready for IRL superstardom.

It’s about time — the world could use a replacement for #BieberFever.

TIME Reproductive Health

Morning-After Pill May Not Be Affected By Body Weight

Morning-after pill
Jacques LOIC—Getty Images/Photononstop RM

Recent studies raised questions about the effectiveness of the contraceptive method among heavier women.

But after an investigation, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) says that emergency contraceptives are effective for women of all weights.

Last year, the agency requested a warning on the label of Norlevo, the European equivalent of Plan B containing levonorgestrel, indicating that it might not be as effective in preventing pregnancy for women with a body mass index (BMI) greater than 25. This decision was based on a 2011 study that showed heavier women who took products containing levonorgestrel—which prevents pregnancy after intercourse—were four times as likely to become pregnant as those with lower BMIs.

After that recommendation, the regulatory agency conducted a review of other emergency contraceptives containing levonorgestrel or ulipristal acetate, and found that the data in the earlier studies was limited and not substantial enough to conclude that the contraceptives’ effect was decreased with increased body weight. That doesn’t mean that weight may not play a role in the drugs’ effectiveness, but for now, the EMA’s Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use (CHMP) recommends that Norlevo remove the current warnings from its label. It also said emergency contraceptives should continue to include on their product inserts some study results showing potentially reduced effects in heavier women.

While the European health authorities took action on Norlevo last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not issued any similar warnings for Plan B. “I don’t necessarily think it’s inevitable that the FDA would act on this,” Dr. Carolyn Westhoff, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and public health at Columbia University and senior medical adviser at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told TIME in November 2013 regarding the data at the time. “People in the field have been scratching their heads since [the 2011 study] was published, saying what sorts of studies could we do to get more data to help us understand this better. To my knowledge, nobody has done those additional studies.”

EMA also admits that such data isn’t available yet, but says that there isn’t enough data to support the previous warning to women about weight.

TIME

Your Great Grandmother’s Exposure to Pesticides Could Be Making You Obese

The effects of pesticides can span three generations, according to the latest research

Your health, or unhealthy state, may be traced back to the stuff your grandparents were exposed to, say researchers from Washington State University (WSU).

They found that exposure to the pesticide methoxychlor, for example, can contribute to diseases in descendants up to three generations later, suggesting that the environment conditions in which your great grandparents lived and worked could affect your risk of obesity, kidney and ovarian diseases.

The heightened susceptibility to these conditions is passed down through genetics, although not in the direct, inherited way. The pesticide probably affected how genes were turned on or off in people three generations ago, and some of these changes, which are normally erased when the reproductive cells — the egg and sperm — join together, somehow were not deleted completely and were passed on to the next generation. And these changes may be affecting weight and cells in the kidneys and ovaries.

“What you’re ancestors were exposed to could radically affect the kind of diseases you get,” says Michael Skinner, the study’s lead author and founder of WSU’s Center for Reproductive Biology.

Skinner has been studying the genetic effects of pesticides for 15 years. His lab has observed such so-called transgenerational epigenetic effects from other toxins such as DDT, plastics, pesticides, fungicides, dioxins, hydrocarbons and bisphenol-A or BPA.

But this was the first study to show that disease risk was transmitted primarily through females. (The study also found the legacy of mutations in the sperm epigenome of great-grandchild male rats.)

Methoxychlor—also known as Chemform, Methoxo, Metox or Moxie—was introduced in 1948 and was widely used in the 1960s as a less toxic substitute for DDT. The pesticide can behave like the hormone estrogen, disrupting reproductive organs. It was used on crops, ornamental plants, livestock and pets, but was banned from the U.S. in 2003 after regulators determined that it, too, was toxic for people. But a generation of individuals had already been exposed, and the effects of that exposure, says Skinner, is still being seen today.

While it is no longer used in the U.S., the pesticide is still sprayed in Mexico, South America and in other countries around the world. But even people who were born after the compound was banned in the U.S., and who have never traveled to areas where it is used, showed the same genetic changes found in people who have been exposed to the chemical.

That means that it may be possible to scan for and potentially predict people’s increased risk for certain diseases by searching for these genetic legacies. “We have the ability to identify the epigenetic marks in ourselves. Some of these marks are exposure-specific. So in the future, we may be able to do an analysis of what you were exposed to or what your ancestors were exposed to and predict what diseases you’re going to get,” says Skinner.

And that could lead to improved treatments for these diseases, based on their epigenetic roots. “Knowing the high statistical probability that you’re going to get this disease, we may be able to come up with therapeutic things in advance,” he says. And by treating them, we may also be helping our great-grandchildren to live without them too.

TIME Aging

Gains in Life Expectancy in the U.S. May Be Slipping

Nearly four in five Americans over age 67 have multiple chronic medical conditions

The more chronic medical conditions you have, the shorter your life will be, say researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In the study, published in the journal Medical Care, the team found that nearly four in five Americans over the age of 67 have multiple chronic conditions such as heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.

Obesity may be driving much of this trend, and may responsible for slowing recent gains in life expectancy. Life expectancy has been growing at about .1 years per year in the U.S., (that’s slower than rates in other developed countries).

The study used the Medicare 5 percent sample, a nationally representative group of 1.4 million Medicare beneficiaries, which included data on 21 chronic conditions. On average, life expectancy decreased by 1.8 years with each additional chronic condition among older Americans.

“When you’re getting sicker and sicker, the body’s ability to handle illness deteriorates and that compounds,” says senior study author Gerard Anderson, a professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins. “Once you have multiple conditions, your life expectancy becomes much shorter.”

For example, he says, a 75-year-old woman with no chronic medical conditions would likely live to at least 92 years old, or another 17.3 years. However, a 75-year-old woman with five chronic conditions will likely only live another 12 more years, and a woman of the same age with 10 chronic conditions would only live to about 80 years old. According to the data, women fare better than men and white people live longer than black people even with the burden of additional health conditions.

The type of chronic disease older people develop also seems to affect their life expectancy. A 67-year-old diagnosed with Alzheimer’s will only live an additional 12 years, while someone with a heart condition can expect another 21.2 years. But once people develop more than one chronic condition, the specific illnesses no longer matter.

“There are interaction effects among the diseases that result in decreases in life expectancy. Any condition on its own has a particular effect. When you have heart disease plus cancer, that has a particular affect, and then those start to accumulate,” says lead study author Eva DuGoff.

The findings may be important for calculating health costs in coming years, especially for Social Security and Medicare programs. Currently, 60% of people over age 67 have three chronic medical conditions that require medical care — a significant increase from previous years when individuals didn’t live long with chronic conditions.

“In some ways we’re a victim of our own success. As we’re living longer and our health system has gotten better, no longer are people dying of heart disease at age 50 so now they’re dying of heart disease later when they have other things like cancer as well,” says DuGoff. Whatever gains improved health care has provided may be eroded by the effect of these accumulating chronic conditions. “We need to reorient our healthcare system to care for chronic conditions. If we don’t reorientate ourselves in that way, the impact of chronic conditions on life expectancy could be extremely negative.”

TIME Brain

Learning to Read Does Not End in Fourth Grade

Girl learning to read
Cultura RM/Gary John Norman—Getty Images/Collection Mix: Subjects RM

Do you remember when reading stopped requiring so much effort, and became almost second nature?

Probably not, but researchers have long believed that it probably happened some time during fourth grade. That’s when, they thought, word-processing tended to become more automatic and less deliberate, and you started to read to learn, as opposed to learning to read.

But a new study published in the journal Developmental Science questions that assumption, showing that children are still learning to read past fourth and even fifth grade. The shift to automatic word-processing, in which the brain recognizes whether a group of symbols constitutes a word within milliseconds, allowing fluid reading that helps the reader focus on the content of the text rather than on the words, may occur later than previously thought.

To test when this process develops, researchers fitted 96 college, third, fourth and fifth grade students with electrode caps to scan their brains as they were shown on a screen real words, fake words, strings of letters and strings of random symbols.

The third-, fourth- and fifth-graders processed real words, fake words, and letter strings similarly to the college students, showing that some automatic word-processing begins as early as third grade. But only the college students processed the meaningless symbols differently from actual words—which suggests that brain activity in the three groups of young children remained the same whether they were processing real words or not. While they showed some signs of automatic word processing, or no longer exerting effort to read, for the most part the younger children still treated familiar and unfamiliar words in the same way.

However, when the researchers switched to a written test, which presumably gave the participants the more time to think about the distinctions, all groups scored above 95 percent, showing that with some effort, or when their conscious brains were involved, the children also realized the difference between real and fake words.

That suggests that for the young children, the processing wasn’t automatic just yet. Study author Donna Coch, associate professor of education at Dartmouth, says that it’s not that fourth graders can’t read well, but rather they aren’t quite as efficient as adults at reading.

“You have a limited amount of resources, and if you’re using them on words that could not be words in your language, that’s taking up resources that could be used in word processing,” says Coch. “If you don’t have to put in effort to sound out words, you can pay more attention to understanding.”

So if fourth-graders aren’t quite reading to learn, then when does the shift toward more complete automatic word-processing occur? According to Coch, that probably happens some time between fifth grade and college—a period she says that hasn’t been studied.

For now, the results strongly suggest that reading skills need to continue to be nurtured during that period. “This certainly does suggest that teachers beyond fourth grade are still teachers of reading,” says Coch.

TIME Brain

Want to Learn a Language? Don’t Try So Hard

If at first you don't succeed, trying again might not help you when it comes to learning languages.

A new study from MIT shows that trying harder can actually make some aspects of learning a new language more difficult. While researchers have known that adults have a harder time with new languages than children do, the latest findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, suggest that adults’ stronger cognitive abilities may actually trip them up.

Children have a “sensitive period” for learning language that lasts until puberty, and during these years, certain parts of the brain are more developed than others. For example, they are adept at procedural memory, which study author Amy Finn, a postdoc at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, describes as the “memory system we get for free.” It’s involved in tasks we learn unconsciously such as riding a bike, dancing, or subtle language rules. It’s a system that learns from observing and from experience; neural circuits in the brain build a set of rules for constructing words and sentences by absorbing and analyzing information—like sounds—from the world around them.

“The procedural memory is already in place for an infant and working well, and not interacting with other brain functions,” says Finn. However, as people age, another memory system that is less based on exploratory processes starts to mature, and control the language learning process. “As an adult, you have really useful late-developing memory systems that take over and do everything.”

In essence, adults may over-analyze new language rules or sounds and try to make them fit into some understandable and coherent pattern that makes sense to them. But a new language may involve grammar rules that aren’t so easily explained, and adults have more difficulty overcoming those obstacles than children, who simply absorb the rules or exceptions and learn from them. That’s especially true with pronunciation, since the way we make sounds is something that is established early in life, and becomes second nature.

“Adults are much better at picking up things that are going to immediately help them like words and things that will help them navigate a supermarket,” says Finn. “You can learn language functionally as an adult, but you’ll never sound like a native speaker.”

So how can adults remove their own roadblocks to learning new languages? Finn says more research needs to be done to determine if adults can ever go back to learning languages like children, but linguists are looking at a variety of options. A few include “turning off” certain areas of the brain using a drug or a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, which might allow adults to be more open to accepting new language rules and sounds.

Finn also hopes to study adults performing a challenging task while they learn a language, which is another way of distracting the cognitive portions of the brain from focusing on the new language, to see if that can help them to absorb more linguistic information.

TIME Television

Finally, Homeland Season 4 Trailer Revealed!

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland.
Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland. Jim Fiscus—Showtime

Featuring Carrie Mathison in the Pakistani danger zone

Homeland fans, rejoice!

The first look at the drama’s fourth season is out today, and it looks just as intense as ever.

The trailer shows Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) in Pakistan, still doing what looks like lots of dangerous things and angering her colleagues. There’s not much else we know yet, but you can see lots of explosions, as well as Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) and Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) playing their usual selves.

The new season of Showtime’s spy show will premiere Oct. 5.

TIME

Putin’s Approval Rating Reaches Record High in Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russia's President Vladimir Putin smiles while speaking with journalists in Itamaraty Palace in Brazilia, early on July 17, 2014. Alexei Nikolsky—AFP/Getty Images

Russians are also satisfied with their freedom, military and elections

Amid the conflict in Ukraine and growing discord with European neighbors and Western countries, Vladimir Putin’s approval rating among Russians has climbed to its highest level in years, according to a new Gallup poll.

Eighty-three percent of Russians approve of the job Russia’s president is doing. This ties his top rating in 2008 and marks a 29 percentage point increase from Putin’s rating in 2013.

For the first time since 2008, a majority of Russians say their country’s leadership is moving them in the right direction. In addition, 78% have confidence in their military, 64% in their national government, and 39% say that they are confident in the honesty of Russian elections.

But Russians’ positivity isn’t limited to their government. A record high of 65% of Russians said they were satisfied with their freedom in 2014. A significant group–35 %–also said they thought economic conditions were improving.

While Russians are satisfied with their own government, the poll showed they are increasingly turning away from Western countries. Both U.S. and European Union leadership had single digit approval ratings. One country Russians do approve of is China. The poll showed Russians’ approval for China soared this year to a record 42%. In recent months, the two countries have shown close economic ties, signing a $400 billion gas deal this spring.

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