May 9, 2023

By Courtney Wise

Greetings, MindSite readers! In today’s Daily, we look at the power of the placebo effect. In other news, some schools are starting classes later to improve teen mental health, and (perhaps to no one’s surprise), seasonal allergies may just undermine your mental health. Plus, a look at high expectations for sex during the senior years,

cannabis’s effect on anxiety, and pioneering psychedelics researcher Roland Griffiths’ new fund for the study of psychedelics at Johns Hopkins University – one of his final gifts.

Seasonal allergies may affect your mental health

If seasonal allergies have you feeling miserable, it’s possible there’s more than the congestion, sneezing, and itchy, watery eyes causing you grief. Scientists say research is showing a link between allergens and mood disorders like depression and anxiety. The relationship “really is underrecognized, not only in the general population but even among health care practitioners,” David A. Gudis of New York-Presbyterian/ Columbia University Irving Medical Center told the New York Times.

Feeling sick is its own psychological stressor, said Gudis, but researchers believe the chronic inflammation associated with seasonal allergies is partly to blame. For instance, tree pollen in the nose of someone with allergies triggers the body’s immune response, releasing substances called cytokines that help the body fight some infections. “These cytokines activate areas of the brain that regulate depression and anxiety,” explained Todd Gould, professor of psychiatry at University of Maryland. Studies demonstrating such direct links between cytokines and mood disorders have only been conducted on rodents thus far, but additional research supports the theory that effects are similar in humans.

Some schools push back start times to fight youth mental health crisis

Pennsylvania’s Upper Darby School District is letting science guide its latest effort to improve teen mental health. This year, students at Upper Darby High School start their days 2 hours later than in previous years, at 9:45 am rather than 7:30 am. “I’ll be honest, I’ve been much happier in the mornings,” senior Khalid Doulat told ABC News. “I’ve been more positive, and I’ve come to school smiling more rather than, you know, grudging out of bed and stuff like that at 7:30.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that no middle or high school begin classes before 8:30 am in order to support adolescent sleep. Insufficient sleep is linked to poorer mental and physical health, car crashes due to drowsy driving and lower academic performance. “I think getting more sleep is definitely helping,” said Elise Olmstead, a junior. With an earlier start time, she said, “I would be more irritable throughout the day, especially later, because I have a lot of after-school things. I would just have a harder time getting through the day.”

Critics of the time change argue students are losing vital instructional time since class periods have been reduced to adjust for the schedule change. School begins later, but the day still ends at 3:00 pm. However, principal Matthew Alloway said the change is helping. Teachers report fewer students sleeping in class, and thanks to virtual learning during COVID, instructional time is concentrated with more of what kids need, he said. Plus, administrators say teachers have more time to care for themselves in the morning. “It’s such little changes in our daily lives that we don’t notice it,” Doulat said. “But they slowly start building up, and we actually see the difference within our own lives.”

Are we minimizing the placebo effect?

In a column published by The Lancet, University of Toronto researcher Matthew Burke argues scientists are underestimating the power of the placebo effect and that it needs to be examined more thoroughly. “We often ignore placebo effects as a nuisance…but the more we learn about the brain, the clearer it becomes that we have missed the boat,” Burke wrote on Twitter

Burke considered the results of a brain stimulation study published in January 2023, also in The Lancet. All the patients suffered from moderate to severe depression, and all had been offered or taken antidepressants in the three months prior to the study. Burke points to the 41% of participants who reported full remission from depression in the study’s placebo group, compared with the 30% in the group that received actual brain stimulation. Participants who received medical treatment were worse afterwards, in fact, compared to the placebo group.

“A crucial point is that placebo responsiveness does not make a symptom or disorder any less real or biological,” Burke wrote in The Lancet. “Instead, placebo responsiveness means that pathophysiology likely overlaps with brain or brain-body circuits that can be modulated by placebo effects.”

Science writer Peter Simon, in a Mad in America article responding to Burke’s column, wrote that “hope, support, and relaxing, structured activities have a psychological effect on psychological distress.” He adds that a key question is why subjects in some trials who received medication had worse outcomes than the placebo group.

In other news…

The 70-year itch: Can you have a great sex life when you’re old? A study in The Gerontologist found that if you expect good sex, you’re likely to get it. Researchers asked hundreds of couples aged 45 and older how satisfying they expected their sex lives to be a decade in the future as part of the Midlife in the US survey. In a follow-up survey ten years after the first, researchers found that couples who were “sexually optimistic” experienced more frequent and more satisfying sex than those who had lower expectations. “I’m always amazed at how people are surprised about talking about sex and older adults, like it’s always this great revelation,” Natalie Wilton, a therapist who specializes in senior sexuality, said to NPR. “If something was really good right now, why would you want it to stop?”

Does weed reduce anxiety or cause it? That depends, researchers say. “We have this way of talking about cannabis as if it’s one thing, and it isn’t,” Staci Gruber, a cannabis researcher at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, told The Washington Post. The plant is “unbelievably complex in the most amazing way.” The effect of cannabis can vary based on how its ingested, (smoked, vaped, or eaten), and the state of mind a person is in when they consume it. 

Roland Griffiths, a pioneering researcher on psychedelics, is reaching the end of his life. To promote further study in the field before he leaves, he’s established The Roland R. Griffiths, Ph.D. Professorship Fund in Psychedelic Research on Secular Spirituality and Well-Being, Lucid News reports. The fund will support an endowed professorship at Johns Hopkins University focused on empirical research with psychedelic substances. Most of the current psychedelic research is centered on medical therapies. 

“Where I sit as a scientist is that psychedelics are the most powerful tool we have in the scientific toolbox to understand awakening experiences,” Griffiths said. “What the endowment will do is provide complete funding for the salary of a well-established scientist who understands psychedelics and who has a deep interest in life-transformative awakening experiences.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...