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When building causal knowledge in behavioural genetics, the natural randomisation of genotypes at conception (approximately analogous to the artificial randomisation occurring in randomised controlled trials) facilitates the discovery of genetic causes. More importantly, the randomisation of genetic material within families also enables a better identification of (environmental) risk factors and aetiological pathways to diseases and behaviours.
Existing regulation in the UK states that the term ‘milk’ can only be used in labelling to describe products that originate from animals. We conducted an observational study, which surveyed the availability and labelling of milk substitutes in UK supermarkets, and an online experimental study, which assessed the impact of using the term ‘milk’ on milk substitute labelling. In the experimental study, 352 UK adults were randomised to one of the two conditions where they saw milk substitutes that were either labelled with UK regulations (e.g., soya drink) or using the term ‘milk’ (e.g., soya milk). Our primary aims were to assess whether adding the term ‘milk’ to labels would (1) more accurately communicate the uses of milk substitutes or (2) confuse consumers about which products come from an animal source. In our observational study, milk substitutes were readily available and labelling varied significantly. In our experimental study, labelling products with the term ‘milk’ increased understanding of the product's use. However, participants who saw the term ‘milk’ on milk substitute labelling misidentified more milk substitutes as coming from an animal source. Future policy should consider the clarification of such labelling.
Major depressive disorder (MDD) was previously associated with negative affective biases. Evidence from larger population-based studies, however, is lacking, including whether biases normalise with remission. We investigated associations between affective bias measures and depressive symptom severity across a large community-based sample, followed by examining differences between remitted individuals and controls.
Participants from Generation Scotland (N = 1109) completed the: (i) Bristol Emotion Recognition Task (BERT), (ii) Face Affective Go/No-go (FAGN), and (iii) Cambridge Gambling Task (CGT). Individuals were classified as MDD-current (n = 43), MDD-remitted (n = 282), or controls (n = 784). Analyses included using affective bias summary measures (primary analyses), followed by detailed emotion/condition analyses of BERT and FAGN (secondary analyses).
For summary measures, the only significant finding was an association between greater symptoms and lower risk adjustment for CGT across the sample (individuals with greater symptoms were less likely to bet more, despite increasingly favourable conditions). This was no longer significant when controlling for non-affective cognition. No differences were found for remitted-MDD v. controls. Detailed analysis of BERT and FAGN indicated subtle negative biases across multiple measures of affective cognition with increasing symptom severity, that were independent of non-effective cognition [e.g. greater tendency to rate faces as angry (BERT), and lower accuracy for happy/neutral conditions (FAGN)]. Results for remitted-MDD were inconsistent.
This suggests the presence of subtle negative affective biases at the level of emotion/condition in association with depressive symptoms across the sample, over and above those accounted for by non-affective cognition, with no evidence for affective biases in remitted individuals.
Cultural effects can influence the results of causal genetic analyses, such as Mendelian randomisation, but the potential influences of culture on genotype–phenotype associations are not currently well understood. Different genetic variants could be associated with different phenotypes in different populations, or culture could confound or influence the direction of the association between genotypes and phenotypes in different populations.
Previous research has suggested that statistical power is suboptimal in many biomedical disciplines, but it is unclear whether power is better in trials for particular interventions, disorders, or outcome types. We therefore performed a detailed examination of power in trials of psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy, and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) for mood, anxiety, and psychotic disorders.
We extracted data from the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (Mental Health). We focused on continuous efficacy outcomes and estimated power to detect predetermined effect sizes (standardized mean difference [SMD] = 0.20–0.80, primary SMD = 0.40) and meta-analytic effect sizes (ESMA). We performed meta-regression to estimate the influence of including underpowered studies in meta-analyses.
We included 256 reviews with 10 686 meta-analyses and 47 384 studies. Statistical power for continuous efficacy outcomes was very low across intervention and disorder types (overall median [IQR] power for SMD = 0.40: 0.32 [0.19–0.54]; for ESMA: 0.23 [0.09–0.58]), only reaching conventionally acceptable levels (80%) for SMD = 0.80. Median power to detect the ESMA was higher in treatment-as-usual (TAU)/waitlist-controlled (0.49–0.63) or placebo-controlled (0.12–0.38) trials than in trials comparing active treatments (0.07–0.13). Adequately-powered studies produced smaller effect sizes than underpowered studies (B = −0.06, p ⩽ 0.001).
Power to detect both predetermined and meta-analytic effect sizes in psychiatric trials was low across all interventions and disorders examined. Consistent with the presence of reporting bias, underpowered studies produced larger effect sizes than adequately-powered studies. These results emphasize the need to increase sample sizes and to reduce reporting bias against studies reporting null results to improve the reliability of the published literature.
Anhedonia – a diminished interest or pleasure in activities – is a core self-reported symptom of depression which is poorly understood and often resistant to conventional antidepressants. This symptom may occur due to dysfunction in one or more sub-components of reward processing: motivation, consummatory experience and/or learning. However, the precise impairments remain elusive. Dissociating these components (ideally, using cross-species measures) and relating them to the subjective experience of anhedonia is critical as it may benefit fundamental biology research and novel drug development.
Using a battery of behavioural tasks based on rodent assays, we examined reward motivation (Joystick-Operated Runway Task, JORT; and Effort-Expenditure for Rewards Task, EEfRT) and reward sensitivity (Sweet Taste Test) in a non-clinical population who scored high (N = 32) or low (N = 34) on an anhedonia questionnaire (Snaith–Hamilton Pleasure Scale).
Compared to the low anhedonia group, the high anhedonia group displayed marginal impairments in effort-based decision-making (EEfRT) and reduced reward sensitivity (Sweet Taste Test). However, we found no evidence of a difference between groups in physical effort exerted for reward (JORT). Interestingly, whilst the EEfRT and Sweet Taste Test correlated with anhedonia measures, they did not correlate with each other. This poses the question of whether there are subgroups within anhedonia; however, further work is required to directly test this hypothesis.
Our findings suggest that anhedonia is a heterogeneous symptom associated with impairments in reward sensitivity and effort-based decision-making.
Depression is characterised by a heightened self-focus, which is believed to be associated with differences in emotion and reward processing. However, the precise relationship between these cognitive domains is not well understood. We examined the role of self-reference in emotion and reward processing, separately and in combination, in relation to depression.
Adults experiencing varying levels of depression (n = 144) completed self-report depression measures (PHQ-9, BDI-II). We measured self, emotion and reward processing, separately and in combination, using three cognitive tasks.
When self-processing was measured independently of emotion and reward, in a simple associative learning task, there was little association with depression. However, when self and emotion processing occurred in combination in a self-esteem go/no-go task, depression was associated with an increased positive other bias [b = 3.51, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.24–5.79]. When the self was processed in relation to emotion and reward, in a social evaluation learning task, depression was associated with reduced positive self-biases (b = 0.11, 95% CI 0.05–0.17).
Depression was associated with enhanced positive implicit associations with others, and reduced positive learning about the self, culminating in reduced self-favouring biases. However, when self, emotion and reward processing occurred independently there was little evidence of an association with depression. Treatments targeting reduced positive self-biases may provide more sensitive targets for therapeutic intervention and potential biomarkers of treatment responses, allowing the development of more effective interventions.
Identifying factors that contribute to mental health difficulties in young people as early in life as possible are needed to inform prevention strategies. One area of interest is attachment. Although existing research has suggested an association between insecure attachment styles and mental health difficulties, these studies often have small sample sizes, use cross-sectional designs, and measure attachment as a discrete variable at a single point or use romantic relationship attachment as a proxy for childhood attachment. It is also unclear whether these associations persist into late adolescence. In this large prospective study we aimed to determine whether an insecure attachment style measured at repeated points in early childhood, is associated with depression and self-harm at 18 years.
We used data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children cohort. Mothers completed attachment related questionnaires when their child was 18, 30, and 42 months old. Offspring depression and lifetime self-harm was assessed at 18 years in clinic using the Clinical Interview Schedule-Revised. Attachment was derived as a continuous latent variable in a structural equation modelling framework. Logistic regression was performed on participants with complete attachment data (n = 7032) to examine the association between attachment style and depression and self-harm, with adjustment for potential confounders. Differential dropout was accounted for using multiple imputation.
We found some evidence for an association between a more insecure attachment style in childhood, and a diagnosis of depression and life-time self-harm at age 18. In the fully adjusted imputed model, a one standard deviation increase in insecure attachment was associated with a 13% increase in the odds of depression (OR = 1.13; 95%CI = 1.00 to 1.27) and a 14% increase in the odds of self-harm at age 18 (OR = 1.14; 95%CI = 1.02 to 1.25), for children who had more insecure attachment in early childhood, compared with children who had more secure attachment.
This is the largest longitudinal study to examine the prospective association between childhood attachment and depression and self-harm in late adolescence. Our findings strengthen the evidence suggesting that a childhood insecure attachment style is associated with mental health difficulties in late adolescence. Policies and interventions to support parenting behaviours that foster the development of secure attachment styles, or attachment-based therapies to improve attachment quality, could help reduce depression and self-harm in adolescence/young adulthood.
Philippa Clery is supported by the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research at the University of Bristol and the Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund.
Self-harm and eating disorders are often comorbid in clinical samples but their co-occurrence in the general population is unclear. Given that only a small proportion of individuals who self-harm or have disordered eating present to clinical services, and that both self-harm and eating disorders are associated with substantial morbidity and mortality, we aimed to study these behaviours at a population level.
We assessed the co-occurrence of self-harm and disordered eating behaviours in 3384 females and 2326 males from a UK population-based cohort: the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). Participants reported on their self-harm and disordered eating behaviours (fasting, purging, binge-eating and excessive exercise) in the last year via questionnaire at 16 and 24 years. At each age we assessed how many individuals who self-harm also reported disordered eating, and how many individuals with disordered eating also reported self-harm.
We found high comorbidity of self-harm and disordered eating. Almost two-thirds of 16-year-old females, and two-in-five 24-year-old males who self-harmed also reported some form of disordered eating. Young people with disordered eating reported higher levels of self-harm at both ages compared to those without disordered eating.
As self-harm and disordered eating commonly co-occur in young people in the general population, it is important to screen for both sets of difficulties to provide appropriate treatment.
Anxiety and depression are leading causes of disability worldwide, yet individuals are often unable to access appropriate treatment. There is a need to develop effective interventions that can be delivered remotely. Previous research has suggested that emotional processing biases are a potential target for intervention, and these may be altered through brief training programs.
We report two experimental medicine studies of emotional bias training in two samples: individuals from the general population (n = 522) and individuals currently taking antidepressants to treat anxiety or depression (n = 212). Participants, recruited online, completed four sessions of EBT from their own home. Mental health and cognitive functioning outcomes were assessed at baseline, immediately post-training, and at 2-week follow-up.
In both studies, our intervention successfully trained participants to perceive ambiguous social information more positively. This persisted at a 2-week follow-up. There was no clear evidence that this change in emotional processing transferred to improvements in symptoms in the primary analyses. However, in both studies, there was weak evidence for improved quality of life following EBT amongst individuals with more depressive symptoms at baseline. No clear evidence of transfer effects was observed for self-reported daily stress, anhedonia or depressive symptoms. Exploratory analyses suggested that younger participants reported greater treatment gains.
These studies demonstrate the effectiveness of delivering a multi-session online training program to promote lasting cognitive changes. Given the inconsistent evidence for transfer effects, EBT requires further development before it can be considered as a treatment for anxiety and depression.
Poor mental health has consistently been associated with substance use (smoking, alcohol drinking, cannabis use, and consumption of caffeinated drinks). To properly inform public health policy it is crucial to understand the mechanisms underlying these associations, and most importantly, whether or not they are causal.
In this pre-registered systematic review, we assessed the evidence for causal relationships between mental health and substance use from Mendelian randomization (MR) studies, following PRISMA. We rated the quality of included studies using a scoring system that incorporates important indices of quality, such as the quality of phenotype measurement, instrument strength, and use of sensitivity methods.
Sixty-three studies were included for qualitative synthesis. The final quality rating was ‘−’ for 16 studies, ‘– +’ for 37 studies, and ‘+’for 10 studies. There was robust evidence that higher educational attainment decreases smoking and that there is a bi-directional, increasing relationship between smoking and (symptoms of) mental disorders. Another robust finding was that higher educational attainment increases alcohol use frequency, but decreases binge-drinking and alcohol use problems, and that mental disorders causally lead to more alcohol drinking without evidence for the reverse.
The current MR literature increases our understanding of the relationship between mental health and substance use. Bi-directional causal relationships are indicated, especially for smoking, providing further incentive to strengthen public health efforts to decrease substance use. Future MR studies should make use of large(r) samples in combination with detailed phenotypes, a wide range of sensitivity methods, and triangulate with other research methods.
The goal of much observational research is to identify risk factors that have a causal effect on health and social outcomes. However, observational data are subject to biases from confounding, selection and measurement, which can result in an underestimate or overestimate of the effect of interest. Various advanced statistical approaches exist that offer certain advantages in terms of addressing these potential biases. However, although these statistical approaches have different underlying statistical assumptions, in practice they cannot always completely remove key sources of bias; therefore, using design-based approaches to improve causal inference is also important. Here it is the design of the study that addresses the problem of potential bias – either by ensuring it is not present (under certain assumptions) or by comparing results across methods with different sources and direction of potential bias. The distinction between statistical and design-based approaches is not an absolute one, but it provides a framework for triangulation – the thoughtful application of multiple approaches (e.g. statistical and design based), each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and in particular sources and directions of bias. It is unlikely that any single method can provide a definite answer to a causal question, but the triangulation of evidence provided by different approaches can provide a stronger basis for causal inference. Triangulation can be considered part of wider efforts to improve the transparency and robustness of scientific research, and the wider scientific infrastructure and system of incentives.
Depression is characterised by negative views of the self. Antidepressant treatment may remediate negative self-schema through increasing processing of positive information about the self. Changes in affective processing during social interactions may increase expression of prosocial behaviours, improving interpersonal communications.
To examine whether acute administration of citalopram is associated with an increase in positive affective learning biases about the self and prosocial behaviour.
Healthy volunteers (n = 41) were randomised to either an acute 20 mg dose of citalopram or matched placebo in a between-subjects double-blind design. Participants completed computer-based cognitive tasks designed to measure referential affective processing, social cognition and expression of prosocial behaviours.
Participants administered citalopram made more cooperative choices than those administered placebo in a prisoner's dilemma task (β = 20%, 95% CI: 2%, 37%). Exploratory analyses indicated that participants administered citalopram showed a positive bias when learning social evaluations about a friend (β = 4.06, 95% CI: 0.88, 7.24), but not about the self or a stranger. Similarly, exploratory analyses found evidence of increased recall of positive words and reduced recall of negative words about others (β = 2.41, 95% CI: 0.89, 3.93), but not the self, in the citalopram group.
Participants administered citalopram showed greater prosocial behaviours, increased positive recall and increased positive learning of social evaluations towards others. The increase in positive affective bias and prosocial behaviours towards others may, at least partially, be a mechanism of antidepressant effect. However, we found no evidence that citalopram influenced self-referential processing.
Observational studies have found associations between smoking and both poorer cognitive ability and lower educational attainment; however, evaluating causality is challenging. We used two complementary methods to explore this.
We conducted observational analyses of up to 12 004 participants in a cohort study (Study One) and Mendelian randomisation (MR) analyses using summary and cohort data (Study Two). Outcome measures were cognitive ability at age 15 and educational attainment at age 16 (Study One), and educational attainment and fluid intelligence (Study Two).
Study One: heaviness of smoking at age 15 was associated with lower cognitive ability at age 15 and lower educational attainment at age 16. Adjustment for potential confounders partially attenuated findings (e.g. fully adjusted cognitive ability β −0.736, 95% CI −1.238 to −0.233, p = 0.004; fully adjusted educational attainment β −1.254, 95% CI −1.597 to −0.911, p < 0.001). Study Two: MR indicated that both smoking initiation and lifetime smoking predict lower educational attainment (e.g. smoking initiation to educational attainment inverse-variance weighted MR β −0.197, 95% CI −0.223 to −0.171, p = 1.78 × 10−49). Educational attainment results were robust to sensitivity analyses, while analyses of general cognitive ability were less so.
We find some evidence of a causal effect of smoking on lower educational attainment, but not cognitive ability. Triangulation of evidence across observational and MR methods is a strength, but the genetic variants associated with smoking initiation may be pleiotropic, suggesting caution in interpreting these results. The nature of this pleiotropy warrants further study.
Smoking rates in people with depression and anxiety are twice as high as in the general population, even though people with depression and anxiety are motivated to stop smoking. Most healthcare professionals are aware that stopping smoking is one of the greatest changes that people can make to improve their health. However, smoking cessation can be a difficult topic to raise. Evidence suggests that smoking may cause some mental health problems, and that the tobacco withdrawal cycle partly contributes to worse mental health. By stopping smoking, a person's mental health may improve, and the size of this improvement might be equal to taking antidepressants. In this article we outline ways in which healthcare professionals can compassionately and respectfully raise the topic of smoking to encourage smoking cessation. We draw on evidence-based methods such as cognitive–behavioural therapy (CBT) and outline approaches that healthcare professionals can use to integrate these methods into routine care to help their patients stop smoking.
Despite the early promise of behavioral genetic research, efforts to disentangle the genetic contribution to individual differences in behavior (e.g., personality traits) have been slow. Early studies relied on a candidate gene approach to identify genes influencing these traits; however, many of these failed to replicate, despite having a plausible biological mechanism. More recent studies have used whole genome approaches to investigate the genetic architecture of behavioral traits. However, unlike many other complex traits such as height (Marouli et al., 2017; Wood et al., 2014) and schizophrenia (Schizophrenia Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium, 2014), relatively few genetic variants have been identified which are robustly associated with temperament and individual differences in personality.
Behavioral determinants with the largest effects are often those related to the environments in which behaviors occur. This suggests the merits of a shift in focus of changing behavior at scale away from interventions based on deliberation and decision-making and toward interventions that involve changing cues – physical, digital, social, and economic – in environments. This chapter focuses on changing cues in small-scale physical environments – sometimes known as choice architecture or nudge interventions. Despite attracting much interest, these interventions have been little explored from a theoretical perspective. Exploring the mechanisms by which some of these interventions exert their effects provides a starting point. Examining evidence of three interventions – increasing availability of healthier food options, reducing glass size, and putting warning labels on food and alcohol products – suggests no single theory explains their effects. The mechanisms by which these interventions affect behavior change also necessitate different levels of explanation and demand a theoretical framework that applies at different levels. Recognizing the distinction between model-free and model-based learning and behavior may be central to this. Advancing knowledge on changing behavior by changing environments requires robustly designed field studies to estimate effect sizes, complemented by laboratory studies testing mechanisms to optimize interventions and develop theoretical understanding.
Large population-based cohort studies of neuropsychological factors that characterise or precede depressive symptoms are rare. Most studies use small case-control or cross-sectional designs, which may cause selection bias and cannot test temporality. In a large UK population-based cohort, we investigated cross-sectional and longitudinal associations between inhibitory control of positive and negative information and adolescent depressive symptoms.
Cohort study of 2328 UK adolescents who completed an affective go/no-go task at age 18. Depressive symptoms were assessed with the Clinical Interview Schedule Revised (CIS-R) and short Mood and Feeling Questionnaire (sMFQ) at age 18, and with the sMFQ 1 year later (age 19). Analyses were multilevel and traditional linear regressions, before and after adjusting for confounders.
Cross-sectionally, we found little evidence that adolescents with more depressive symptoms made more inhibitory control errors [after adjustments, errors increased by 0.04% per 1 s.d. increase in sMFQ score (95% confidence interval 0.02–0.06)], but this association was not observed for the CIS-R. There was no evidence for an influence of valence. Longitudinally, there was no evidence that reduced inhibitory control was associated with future depressive symptoms.
Inhibitory control of positive and negative information does not appear to be a marker of current or future depressive symptoms in adolescents and would not be a useful target in interventions to prevent adolescent depression. Our lack of convincing evidence for associations with depressive symptoms suggests that the affective go/no-go task is not a promising candidate for future neuroimaging studies of adolescent depression.
It is not clear to what extent associations between schizophrenia, cannabis use and cigarette use are due to a shared genetic etiology. We, therefore, examined whether schizophrenia genetic risk associates with longitudinal patterns of cigarette and cannabis use in adolescence and mediating pathways for any association to inform potential reduction strategies.
Associations between schizophrenia polygenic scores and longitudinal latent classes of cigarette and cannabis use from ages 14 to 19 years were investigated in up to 3925 individuals in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. Mediation models were estimated to assess the potential mediating effects of a range of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral phenotypes.
The schizophrenia polygenic score, based on single nucleotide polymorphisms meeting a training-set p threshold of 0.05, was associated with late-onset cannabis use (OR = 1.23; 95% CI = 1.08,1.41), but not with cigarette or early-onset cannabis use classes. This association was not mediated through lower IQ, victimization, emotional difficulties, antisocial behavior, impulsivity, or poorer social relationships during childhood. Sensitivity analyses adjusting for genetic liability to cannabis or cigarette use, using polygenic scores excluding the CHRNA5-A3-B4 gene cluster, or basing scores on a 0.5 training-set p threshold, provided results consistent with our main analyses.
Our study provides evidence that genetic risk for schizophrenia is associated with patterns of cannabis use during adolescence. Investigation of pathways other than the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral phenotypes examined here is required to identify modifiable targets to reduce the public health burden of cannabis use in the population.