and beliefs about a topic’s plausibility to create our own understanding, or “gist,” of the situation. For example, parents may piece together the notions that mercury is a poison; that he measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine contained mercury; and that autism started to appear around the time children first began receiving the vaccine in the 1950s. From that, they form a “gist” that the MMR vaccine causes autism, despite the fact that MMR vaccines no longer contain mercury, and that with earlier versions, people vilified the wrong type of mercury — a form that would have killed a live vaccine. Such beliefs are further fueled by anti-vaccination websites that make their case in compelling though erroneous ways, Reyna adds. To intervene, she suggests that health officials create equally strong narratives on official government health sites, which too often are mere lists of facts. “You need to boil the content down to a meaningful gist hat explains the importance and safety of vaccination in a way that makes sense to the public,” she says.
Epigenetics: What you should know
Psychologists have long known that disorders can manifest
differently in boys and girls, or that one gender is more
susceptible to certain mental illnesses than
the other. The link between these biological
sex differences and the resulting gender
differences in behavior has been studied
primarily in terms of hormonal changes
that occur immediately before and after
birth. But as Emilie Rissman, PhD, has
found, hormones don’t fully explain all
of the ways sexual difference manifests
psychologically and neurologically.
For that, Rissman, professor of biochemistry and molecular
genetics and research professor of endocrinology at the
University of Virginia School of Medicine, investigates the role
of epigenetics — the process by which environmental factors
like maternal stress or diet during pregnancy can alter gene
transcription without changing actual DNA — in prenatal
Her talk, “What Every Psychologist Needs to Know About
Epigenetics,” will present evidence from her current research
with mice that combinations of genes and environmental
triggers work together to change “normal” social behaviors
to “abnormal.” “During critical periods of development,
environmental factors can exacerbate gender differences” in
psychological development, says Rissman.
This may explain why autism spectrum disorders, for
example, are more prevalent among little boys and why girls
with schizophrenia tend to be more functional than boys with
the same diagnosis.
Virtual reality goes to war
War may be hell but, as Albert “Skip” Rizzo, PhD, points out, its
urgency tends to drive innovations in medicine, rehabilitation
and mental health in ways rarely seen in civilian life.
As associate director of the Institute for
Creative Technologies at the University of
Southern California — and a self-described
pacifist — Rizzo has been working with
the Department of Defense to develop
virtual reality simulations for treating
service members with post-traumatic
stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain
injury, post-injury physical rehabilitation
and other problems. His institute is also developing artificially
intelligent (AI) virtual human computer programs, known as
SimCoach, which allow veterans to interact confidentially with
simulated behavioral health-care guides designed to promote
anonymous self-assessment and break down barriers to care. This
AI work is also creating virtual human standardized patients for
clinical training in psychology and medicine.
In his plenary presentation, “Virtual Reality Goes to War:
Innovations in Military Behavioral Health Care,” Rizzo will
discuss his work designing virtual exposure therapy for PTSD
worlds that mimic high-intensity situations in Iraq and
Afghanistan. He will also point to ways his research can be
adapted for civilian use.
For a look at his work, visit Rizzo’s library of
virtual reality and SimCoach videos at www.
Science-based weight loss
We all know we need to eat more vegetables, but Barbara Rolls,
PhD, is out to show us how this can help us manage our weight.
The Helen A. Guthrie chair of nutrition
sciences at Pennsylvania State University,
Rolls studies the factors that influence
people’s food intake. She’s also the creator
of “The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet” (2012),
which helps people find foods that they can
eat lots of while still losing weight.
“What we’ve found is that people eat a
pretty consistent weight of food — more
consistent in weight than in the amount
of calories they consume,” Rolls says. To help reduce the
number of calories in a meal, volumetrics advocates water-rich
foods such as non-starchy vegetables like spinach and broth-based soups, to help keep full. The diet is backed by Rolls’s own
research. In a 2011 study in the American Journal of Clinical
Nutrition, for example, she found that hiding extra vegetables
in the entrees served over a day decreased daily intake by 360
calories without much notice by participants.