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Study links very early birth to introversion, neuroticism, risk aversion in adulthood

Babies born very premature or severely underweight are at heightened risk of becoming introverted, neurotic, and risk averse as adults, according to a press release from BMJ published by EurekaAlert.

Condensed from research material published online in the Archives of Disease in Childhood (Fetal & Neonatal Edition), the BMJ article says that this personality profile may help explain the higher rates of career and relationship difficulties experienced by this group as adults. The researchers, according to the BMJ account, found evidence showing that many adults born very premature/low birth weight are less likely to go on to higher education or get well paid jobs; and they find it harder to make friends, find long term partners, and become a parent.

Very premature birth at less than 32 weeks and/or very low birth weight of less than 1500g have already been known to be linked to a heightened risk of autistic spectrum behaviours, but it has not yet been established that prematurity and low birth weight might also affect other adult personality traits. To determine whether or not there is such a connection, the researchers compared the personality traits of 200 twenty-six-year-old adults who had been born very prematurely and/or severely underweight with those of 197 similarly-aged young people who had been born at term and within the normal weight range. The participants were either part of the Bavarian Longitudinal Study, which has been tracking the health and well-being of children born in 1985-6 in Southern Bavaria, Germany, and admitted to hospital within 10 days of birth, or those born at term in the same maternity units over the same time-frame.

Personality traits were assessed across five dimensions: introversion; neuroticism (tenseness and anxiety); levels of openness to new experiences; agreeableness; and conscientiousness. The researchers found that adults who had been born very prematurely and/or extremely underweight scored significantly higher than their peers who were born at term on all but two of the personality traits – conscientiousness and openness. Adults who had been born very prematurely and/or extremely underweight also reported significantly higher levels of autistic spectrum behaviours, introversion, neuroticism, agreeableness and lower levels of risk taking. This cluster of traits describes a “socially withdrawn personality,” or someone who is easily worried, less socially engaged, less interested in risk taking, and less communicative, according to the researchers.

“The higher scores of [very premature/low birthweight] adults on the socially withdrawn scale are most likely to be the result of alterations in their brain structure and functioning due to the amalgam of changes in brain development related to premature birth and prenatal and neonatal insult,” the researchers reportedly wrote. Their condition at birth may have likely further exposed them to considerable stressors in neonatal intensive care, which may also affect brain development, and adult adaptation, added to which early birth may prompt their parents to be over protective. All in all, the physiological circumstances of these babies’ birth might help explain the higher rates of career and relationship difficulties they now have in adulthood, the researchers reportedly concludes.

August 27th, 2015

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Climbing trees can improve cognitive ability, study says

Climbing a tree and balancing on a beam can dramatically improve cognitive skills, according to a study recently conducted by researchers in the Department of Psychology at the University of North Florida (UNF).

“This research suggests that by doing activities that make us think, we can exercise our brains as well as our bodies,” said Ross Alloway, a research associate at UNF, who along with Tracy Alloway, an associate professor at the university, led the study. “This research has wide-ranging implications for everyone from kids to adults. By taking a break to do activities that are unpredictable and require us to consciously adapt our movements, we can boost our working memory to perform better in the classroom and the boardroom.”

The Alloways’ research project, titled “The Working Memory Benefits Of Proprioceptively Demanding Training: A Pilot Study,” is the first to show that proprioceptively dynamic activities, like climbing a tree, done over a short period of time have dramatic working memory benefits. The the study was undertaken to see if proprioceptive activities completed over a short period of time can enhance working memory performance. Proprioception, the awareness of body positioning and orientation, is associated with working memory. Working memory, the active processing of information, in turn is linked to performance in a wide variety of contexts from grades to sports. The study also sought to ascertain whether an acute and highly intensive period of exercise would yield working memory gains.

For purposes of the study, the UNF researchers recruited adults ages 18 to 59 and tested their working memory. Next, they undertook proprioceptively dynamic activities, designed by the company Movnat, which required proprioception and at least one other element, such as locomotion or route planning. In the study, such activities included climbing trees, walking and crawling on a beam approximately 3 inches wide, moving while paying attention to posture, running barefoot, navigating over, under and around obstacles, as well as lifting and carrying awkwardly weighted objects. After two hours, participants were tested again, and researchers found that their working memory capacity had increased by 50 percent, a dramatic improvement.

The researchers also tested two control groups – one was a college class learning new information in a lecture setting to see if learning new information improved working memory while the other was a yoga class to see if static proprioceptive activities were cognitively beneficial. The Alloways found that neither control group experienced working memory benefits.

The results of the Alloways’ research, recently published in Perceptual and Motor Skills, suggest working memory improvements can be made in just a couple of hours of these physical exercises. “Improving working memory can have a beneficial effect on so many areas in our life, and it’s exciting to see that proprioceptive activities can enhance it in such a short period of time,” said Tracy Allow.

“One possible reason that the training yielded significant working memory gains could be that the training was proprioceptively dynamic, requiring proprioception and at least one other factor-such as locomotion or navigation-at the same time, which may have contributed to the improvements in working memory performance,” the report states. Proprioceptively dynamic training may place a greater demand on working memory than either control condition because as environment and terrain changes, the individual recruits working memory to update information to adapt appropriately. Though the yoga control group also engaged in proprioceptive activities that required awareness of body position, it was relatively static as they performed the yoga postures in a small space, which didn’t allow for locomotion or navigation.

August 20th, 2015

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