Some Scientists Suggest Chronic Anxiety Is a Learning Disorder

iStock.com/SIphotography
iStock.com/SIphotography

People with anxiety see the world a little differently, and some scientists have suggested that they learn differently, too. As Daniel Barron argues in Scientific American, recent research has raised an intriguing possibility: that chronic anxiety could be a learning disorder.

As evidence, he points to a 2015 paper that was penned by psychiatrist Michael Browning, of the University of Oxford, and several of his colleagues. Browning wanted to study how people learn—which historically has been pretty hard to do—so he designed an experiment that would test participants' learning rates in stable versus "volatile" situations. The idea that anxiety could be a learning impairment is a novel idea (though past studies have shown that people with certain learning disabilities are more susceptible to mental illness). There isn't much data to back it up just yet, but the theory could guide future research pertaining to anxiety and learning. "There's a lot of promise," Browning told Scientific American. "What there isn't is a lot of data."

Nonetheless, the results are worth noting. Titled "Anxious individuals have difficulty learning the causal statistics of aversive environments," the paper—published in the journal Nature Neuroscience—details the findings of an experiment that was adapted from a previous learning test. In the newer experiment, 31 subjects were asked to choose between different shaped patches. For each "incorrect" object chosen, the test subject received a "moderately painful" electric zap. In the first block of the experiment, the outcome was stable, meaning that one of two patches delivered a shock with a probability of 75 percent. The second leg of the experiment was more unpredictable, and the shape that had previously delivered the most shocks "reversed on five occasions."

"The difference in participants' learning rate between the stable and volatile task blocks provided a measure of participants' ability to adapt their learning to changes in environmental volatility," researchers write. "To perform the task optimally, participants had to integrate the information about shock magnitude and shock probability, the latter needing to be inferred from the outcome of previous trials."

Researchers discovered that non-anxious people were able to adapt their strategy when the game got more volatile, while anxious people who tested higher on the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory showed a "deficit" in adjusting and responding to the changes.

As Scientific American notes, this study needs to be expanded and replicated before we draw any definitive conclusions about the ways in which people with anxiety learn.

[h/t Scientific American]

Study Finds One in Seven Danish Children Will Be Diagnosed with Mental Illness

Kerkez/iStock via Getty Images
Kerkez/iStock via Getty Images

As researchers continue to investigate the origins of depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders, a new study in JAMA Psychiatry has found that one in seven children in Denmark will develop some form of mental illness before they turn 18.

The paper, by researchers at Aarhus University and other institutions, looked at a database of health information collected from 1.3 million Danish children from age 0 to 18. Boys had a 15.5 percent chance, and girls a 14.6 percent chance, of being clinically diagnosed with a mental illness before age 18. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was the most common disorder among boys, while anxiety was most prevalent among girls. Depression and schizophrenia were also present.

Researchers also examined when children were diagnosed. Boys tended to be labeled with ADHD as young as 8 years old, while girls received the same diagnosis more frequently at 17. Boys were also diagnosed with other illnesses earlier overall.

The study was limited to Denmark, and socioeconomic factors that may influence ailments and diagnoses can vary by country. Still, researchers said these statistics may help mental health professionals prepare earlier intervention and provide young people the help they need.

[h/t Independent]

First-Ever Map of Titan Reveals That Saturn’s Moon Is a Lot Like Earth

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho

If there's any life in this solar system outside Earth, we likely won't find it on Mars or even on another planet. Saturn's moon Titan is the place in our celestial neighborhood that's most similar to our own home, and it's where scientists think we have one of the best chances of discovering life. Now, as Nature reports, newly visualized data shows just how much Titan has in common with Earth.

Between 2004 and 2017, the NASA spacecraft Cassini performed more than 100 fly-bys of Saturn's moon. Titan is unique in that it's the only moon in the solar system with clouds and a dense, weather-forming atmosphere. This has made it hard to study from space, but by flying close to the surface, Cassini was able to capture the landscape in an unprecedented level of detail.

Map of Titan.
The first global geologic map of Titan.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

NASA's new map of Titan, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, reveals a varied world of mountains, valleys, plains, and sandy dunes that starkly contrast with the desolate wastelands we've seen on neighboring planets. It's also home to seas and lakes, making it the only place in the solar system other than Earth with known bodies of liquid. But instead of water, the pools mottling the moon's surface consist of liquid methane.

Even with its Earth-like geology and atmosphere, chances of finding life on Titan are still slim: Temperatures on the surface average around -300°F. If life does exist there, it's likely limited to microbes in the moon's craters and icy volcanoes.

It will be a while before NASA is able to study Titan up close again: NASA's next drone mission to the body is set for 2034. Until then, scientists have plenty of data recorded by Cassini to teach them more about how the moon formed and continues to change.

[h/t Nature]

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