The Science Behind Friendship and Its Largely Overlooked Importance

Yes, there’s scientific research on that too.

For many of us, the top of our life priority list might look something like this: family, work—maybe exercise. Time with friends can sometimes end up near the bottom.

That’s a mistake, says Lydia Denworth, a science journalist and the author of the new book “Friendship,” which was published last month by W.W. Norton & Co. Ms. Denworth interviews animal biologists studying baboons and rhesus macaque monkeys, anthropologists and neuroscientists to uncover just how important friendship is not only for happiness and emotional health, but, she argues, physical health, too. In fact, friends are key to our very survival, Ms. Denworth asserts.

Here are edited excerpts from an interview.

What does studying how animals relate to each other tell us about human friendships?

At its simplest, it’s just how critical quality social bonds and friendships are. In animals, the big measures that evolutionary biologists study are reproductive success, which they count as either how many babies you have or how long those babies live, and longevity, or how long you survive. Nonhuman primates have very structured hierarchies that they exist in, and everyone assumed that that must have more importance for how long you live and how many babies you have and how healthy they are. And it wasn’t. The most important thing was the strength of the social bonds, how positively and well and regularly an individual animal interacted with other animals. Scientists really couldn’t believe it.

How does friendship affect physical health?

Friendship literally improves your body’s cardiovascular functioning, how your immune system works, how you sleep. You can imagine the food you put in your body makes you healthy or not. But sitting in a coffee shop with someone and just chatting about what’s going on with your life, we always thought emotionally that made you feel good. But actually it really is doing much more.

A big study at Harvard of men across their lives from 20 to 80 found that the single best predictor of your health and happiness at 80 was not your wealth or your professional success. It was your relationships at 50.

What makes a good friendship?

The simple definition that biologists use is a friendship is positive, it makes you feel good, it is long-lasting and stable and it has reciprocity and cooperation in it. So there’s a little give and take. Friendship is about setting up your life so you have people you can rely on when you need them. Literally, it was for when the lions came hunting for your friends. Baboons and monkeys do better when they are together. It’s why humans were never really alone.

There’s not one way to do friendship. Some people are introverts and that’s fine. The difference between not having any close friends and having one is enormous in terms of your emotional health and physical health. Quality matters so much more than quantity. Most people only have an average of four really close friends.

Why do we become friends with one person and not another?

There’s this interesting chemistry to friendship. Just like in romance, you are more drawn to some people than you are others. Some of it is very straightforward: You are interested in the same things, you spend time in the same place. That’s one reason why we are close to relatives, because you have a head start, you spend more time with them than you do anyone else. We do tend to be better friends with people who are more like us.

Having a shared world-view turns out to be important. Scientists looked at all these people in a social network, showed them the same sets of videos and looked at how their brains responded to these videos. They could predict just by looking at the brain processing who was friends with whom. Literally, you hear and see the world more like the people you are friends with. The big question is: Is it cause or effect? Are you drawn to people who already see and process the world more similarly from the start or do you become more similar? Of course, as with so many things, the answer is probably both.

What impact is digital communication and social media having on friendships?

With relationships, it usually is net positive. One reason is just because people who are active on social media tend to have wider, bigger, more diverse social networks. What the research is showing is we tend to use social media as just an extra way to communicate with your good friends. And older adults, relationally, they absolutely benefit from social media because they have a harder time getting out or getting around or they’re further from their families. It really has opened up a new channel for people.

That doesn’t mean if you only operate online, you get all those benefits. You don’t. You need a lot of face-to-face time to get the health benefits. But it’s just not true that being online is automatically this big negative. The people for whom social media has a clearer negative effect seem to be people who are already suffering from depression maybe or loneliness.

Experimental Drugs Reverse Arthritis in Rats Study

The science shows potential results in treating a debilitating condition.

People with osteoarthritis, or “wear and tear” arthritis, have limited treatment options: pain relievers or joint replacement surgery. Now, Salk researchers have discovered that a powerful combination of two experimental drugs reverses the cellular and molecular signs of osteoarthritis in rats as well as in isolated human cartilage cells. Their results were published in the journal Protein & Cell on January 16, 2020.

“What’s really exciting is that this is potentially a therapy that can be translated to the clinic quite easily,” says Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, lead author and a professor in Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory. “We are excited to continue refining this promising combination therapy for human use.”

Affecting 30 million adults, osteoarthritis is the most common joint disorder in the United States and its prevalence is expected to rise in coming years due to the aging population and increasing rate of obesity. The disease is caused by gradual changes to cartilage that cushions bones and joints. During aging and repetitive stress, molecules and genes in the cells of this articular cartilage change, eventually leading to the breakdown of the cartilage and the overgrowth of underlying bone, causing chronic pain and stiffness.

Previous research had pinpointed two molecules, alpha-KLOTHO and TGF beta receptor 2 (TGFβR2), as potential drugs to treat osteoarthritis. αKLOTHO acts on the mesh of molecules surrounding articular cartilage cells, keeping this extra-cellular matrix from degrading. TGFβR2 acts more directly on cartilage cells, stimulating their proliferation and preventing their breakdown.

While each drug alone had only moderately curbed osteoarthritis in animal models of the disease, Izpisua Belmonte and his colleagues wondered if the two drugs would act more effectively in concert.

“We thought that by mixing these two molecules that work in different ways, maybe we could make something better,” says Paloma Martinez-Redondo, a Salk postdoctoral fellow and co-first author of the new study.

The researchers treated young, otherwise healthy rats with osteoarthritis with viral particles containing the DNA instructions for making αKLOTHO and TGFβR2.

Six weeks after the treatment, rats that had received control particles had more severe osteoarthritis in their knees, with the disease progressing from stage 2 to stage 4. However, rats that had received particles containing αKLOTHO and TGFβR2 DNA showed recovery of their cartilage: the cartilage was thicker, fewer cells were dying, and actively proliferating cells were present. These animals’ disease improved from stage 2 to stage 1, a mild form of osteoarthritis, and no negative side effects were observed.

“From the very first time we tested this drug combination on just a few animals, we saw a huge improvement,” says Isabel Guillen-Guillen, the paper’s co-first author. “We kept checking more animals and seeing the same encouraging results.”

Further experiments revealed 136 genes that were more active and 18 genes that were less active in the cartilage cells of treated rats compared to control rats. Among those were genes involved in inflammation and immune responses, suggesting some pathways by which the combination treatment works.

To test the applicability of the drug combination to humans, the team treated isolated human articular cartilage cells with αKLOTHO and TGFβR2. Levels of molecules involved in cell proliferation, extra-cellular matrix formation and cartilage cell identity all increased.

“That’s not the same as showing how these drugs affect the knee joint in humans, but we think it’s a good sign that this could potentially work for patients,” says Martinez-Redondo.

The research team plans to develop the treatment further, including investigating whether soluble molecules of the αKLOTHO and TGFβR2 proteins can be taken directly, rather than administered through viral particles. They also will study whether the combination of drugs can prevent the development of osteoarthritis before symptoms develop.

“We think that this could be a viable treatment for osteoarthritis in humans,” says Pedro Guillen, director of the Clinica CEMTRO and co-corresponding author.

Parrots That Show Selfless Kindness

A good study has recently been done on grey parrots.

experiment

According to Charles Darwin, helping others just doesn’t make sense. Yet we’ve seemingly seen altruism time and again in the animal kingdom: in primates, in canines, in cetaceanspinnipeds, even vampire bats. Now, for the first time, it’s been demonstrated in birds.

The kind bird is one of the titans of avian intelligence, the African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus). New experiments have shown these birds happily helping each other acquire treats, without any assumption or anticipation that their altruism will be reciprocated.

“We found that African grey parrots voluntarily and spontaneously help familiar parrots to achieve a goal, without obvious immediate benefit to themselves,” explained behavioural biologist Désirée Brucks of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology.

But the birds take it one step further. Unlike primates, for example, the parrots display no anger or envy if one of their friends receives favourable treatment, instead seeming quite content that good things are happening to a buddy.

Among the bird kingdom, it’s the corvids – such as crows and ravens – that are probably the most famed for their wicked smarts, and with very good reason. In fact, corvids have demonstrated skills previously only observed in primates.

However, the researchers said, corvids have failed tests of altruism. But there are other smart birds out there – like parrots. Cockatoos can make their own tools, and have even demonstrated playful creativity. And African grey parrots have proven to be smarter than a human child in some tests.

So, the research team designed a test for altruism, and gave it to two different types of parrots – eight African greys, and six blue-headed macaws (Primolius couloni).

The birds had been previously trained to exchange tokens (metal washers) for treats. This training was refreshed, and the scientists assessed their subjects’ relationships with other birds of their species. Each bird was tested with one bird with whom they had a close bond, and a second bird with a less close bond.

The birds were then placed in a clear perspex enclosure, with a dividing wall between them. The front of the box had holes through which items could be exchanged with a human; and the dividing wall between the birds also had a hole, through which the two birds could also exchange items.

All the birds quickly understood the concept of swapping the washer for a piece of walnut, and were able to do so. But, when only one of two birds was given tokens, only the African grey parrots, not the macaws, also deliberately gave tokens to their buddies.

“Remarkably, African grey parrots were intrinsically motivated to help others, even if the other individual was not their friend, so they behaved very ‘prosocially,'” said zoologist Auguste von Bayern of Oxford University.

“It surprised us that 7 out of 8 African grey parrots provided their partner with tokens spontaneously – in their very first trial – thus without having experienced the social setting of this task before and without knowing that they would be tested in the other role later on. Therefore, the parrots provided help without gaining any immediate benefits and seemingly without expecting reciprocation in return.”

In all, they voluntarily gave other African grey parrots 157 out of 320 tokens – nearly half. And, interestingly, although they passed tokens regardless of their social bond, they did give more tokens to birds with whom they shared a close bond.

The macaws, by contrast, rarely passed their tokens through to the other parrot. If they did, they dropped it through the hole; and they did it more often when the human experimenter was present. This led the scientists to believe the macaws were trying to pass the token to the human, not their buddy.

The difference could be due to social differences between the species in the wild, but there was one more interesting thing. In a separate recent study, the researchers showed that, when an African grey parrot sees a friend getting a better treat, they didn’t seem particularly bothered. This is in contrast to animals such as chimpanzees, who tend to get riled up about it.

According to von Bayern, this could be because the parrots monogamously mate for life.

“Given that parrots are so closely bonded with a single individual and thus so mutually interdependent, it does not make any difference if one of them gets a better pay-off once in a while,” she said.

“What counts is that together, they function as a unit that can achieve much more than each of them on their own (in addition to raising their joint offspring). This is probably why parrots are much more tolerant towards unequal treatment than species that are not long-term monogamous, while still being excellent cooperators.”

The research has been published in Current Biology.

Drinking Tea Regularly Linked to a Longer Life

Scientists found that there really is merit to drinking green tea.

Drinking tea at least three times a week could be linked with a longer and healthier life, scientists say.

According to new research “habitual” consumption of the hot drink is associated with lower risks of cardiovascular disease and all-cause death.

But whether the tea being consumed is green or black may make a difference.

The analysis included 100,902 participants of the China-PAR project2 with no history of heart attack, stroke, or cancer.

Participants were categorised into two groups – habitual tea drinkers, those drinking three or more times a week, and never or non-habitual tea drinkers  – those drinking less than three times a week.

They were followed-up for a median of 7.3 years, in the study published in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology.

The research suggests a 50-year-old habitual tea drinker would develop coronary heart disease and stroke 1.41 years later, and live 1.26 years, longer than someone who never or seldom drank tea.

Compared with never or non-habitual tea drinkers, habitual tea consumers had a 20% lower risk of incident heart disease and stroke, and a 22% lower risk of fatal heart disease and stroke.

They also had a 15% decreased risk of all-cause death, the study suggests.

First author Dr Xinyan Wang, of the Chinese Academy of Medical Science in Beijing, said: “Habitual tea consumption is associated with lower risks of cardiovascular disease and all-cause death.

“The favourable health effects are the most robust for green tea and for long-term habitual tea drinkers.”

Researchers analysed the potential influence of changes in tea drinking behaviour in a subset of 14,081 participants with assessments at two time points.

The average duration between the two surveys was 8.2 years, and the median follow-up after the second survey was 5.3 years.

Habitual drinkers who maintained their habit in both surveys had a 39% lower risk of incident heart disease and stroke, 56% lower risk of fatal heart disease and stroke, and 29% decreased risk of all-cause death compared to consistent never or non-habitual tea drinkers, the study suggests.

In a sub-analysis by tea type, drinking green tea was linked with around 25% lower risks for incident heart disease and stroke, fatal heart disease and stroke, and all-cause death.

However, no significant associations were observed for black tea.

Scientists found 49% of habitual tea drinkers in the study consumed green tea most frequently, while only 8% preferred black tea.

They noted a preference for green tea in East Asia, and said the small proportion of habitual black tea drinkers might make it more difficult to observe robust associations, but that the findings hint at a differential effect between tea types.

The researchers suggest a number of reasons for this.

They indicate that green tea is a rich source of polyphenols which protect against cardiovascular disease.

While black tea is fully fermented and during this process may lose antioxidant effects.

Gunter Kuhnle, professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Reading, said: “This study is an observational study and can therefore only establish an association – not a causal relationship.”

He added that the two cups per week as cut-off point was very little when compared to the average consumption of three to four cups per day in the UK.

Prof Kuhnle said: “It is not clear from the study whether there is any benefit from higher tea intake – and therefore there is no likely benefit from increasing tea intake by the majority of the British public.”

Study: Facts Misremembered to Fit Personal Biases

Reality is sometimes very unpleasant to see, but there are clearly problems in people choosing to cloud their clear views of reality.

A recent study by Ohio State researchers found that people tend to misremember information to match commonly-held beliefs.

If you’re looking for who’s responsible for all the misinformation out there, you might want to take a peek in the mirror.

OK, OK, it’s not all your fault.

Although external sources of misinformation like “fake news” and purposeful disinformation campaigns draw a lot of attention today, recent research at Ohio State University indicates we might misremember information all on our own.

In a recent study, Ohio State researchers found that when given accurate statistics on a controversial issue, people tended to misremember numbers to match their own beliefs. Then, when researchers gave study participants accurate information and asked them to convey it to others, the information grew more and more different as it was passed from person to person.

“What our research would suggest is there’s a lot of focus on external sources of misinformation, but we also have to pay attention to these internal sources,” said Jason Coronel, an assistant professor of communication at Ohio State.

For the study, participants were given factual numerical information about four societal issues. Based on pre-tests, researchers found that the numbers for two of the societal issues matched many people’s understanding of the matter. But for the other two issues, the numbers didn’t fit with their understanding.

For the numbers that were inconsistent with how people view the issue, participants were more likely to remember the numbers incorrectly, in a way that matched their probable biases.

For example, researchers presented participants with information showing there were 12.8 million Mexican immigrants in the United States in 2007, and fewer — 11.7 million — in 2014. When participants were then given a memory test, they were more likely to remember the statistics incorrectly, in a way that agreed with many people’s understanding that the number of Mexican immigrants would be higher in 2014 than 2007.

In a second portion of the study, researchers examined how memory distortions can be spread among social circles as individuals share the misinformation they created. Mimicking a game of “telephone,” researchers presented a participant with accurate numbers about a societal issue.

For example, the participant was asked to write down the numbers of Mexican immigrants in 2007 and 2014 from memory. The numbers from the first person were then given to a second person, and the process was repeated to a third person.

Researchers found that as the retellings increased from person to person, the information transformed to be more consistent with people’s understanding of the issue rather than the factual numbers.

It’s one thing to believe information yourself without fact-checking it first, said Shannon Poulsen, a doctoral student at Ohio State who conducted the study with Coronel and fellow doctoral student Matthew Sweitzer. But the second portion of the study shows the danger of then sharing inaccurate information with others, she said.

“Now the issue is not just you … now you’re sharing information,” Poulsen said.

Then, you can become part of the bigger problem, Coronel said.

“If you don’t scrutinize on what you’re remembering and you decide to talk about it and pass it on to another person, you just turned into an external source of misinformation,” Coronel said.

It may be a bit unsettling to think you can’t trust your own brain, but researchers hope the study leads to better understanding about how we remember things and encourages healthy scrutiny and skepticism.

“It can be a little bit scary,” Poulsen said. “But if it’s enough to increase … a little bit of skepticism to a point where people can be accurate, that’s great.”

People tend to think of their memories as simply a video recording device, taking in everything and repeating it back when they need it, Coronel said. But lots of research in psychology indicates memory doesn’t work that way.

Instead, think of memory as a jigsaw puzzle, he said — sometimes you’re missing some pieces, or you’ve got pieces from multiple boxes dumped on the same table.

Clinical Trial on Lupus Shows Significant Promise on Better Treating It

Lupus is surprisingly prevalent and is in many respects a uniquely terrible disorder, and this experimental trial shows statistically significant results in treating it. The long-term side effects of using this new medicine (anifrolumab) on lupus patients aren’t known, but the progress on lupus is still important.

Lupus is a potentially fatal autoimmune disorder that impacts roughly 5 million people worldwide, and yet it still has no known cause or cure.

Today, most treatments come with a whole bunch of adverse side effects, and given how little we know, finding new avenues for medicine has proved extremely difficult.

In the past six decades, only one drug for lupus has been approved by the United States Food and Drug Association and it’s still unavailable to many. Now, an international three-year clinical trial offers the first real hope for patients in half a century.

The Phase 3 trial, called TULIP-2, tested a drug called anifrolumab on a randomised selection of 180 people with lupus, giving them 300 mg every four weeks for 48 weeks.

Compared to the placebo, which was given to a further 182 participants who also had lupus, the authors say anifrolumab produced a statistically significant and clinically-meaningful reduction in the disease.

After 52 weeks, not only only did this drug reduce autoimmune activity in the relevant organs of many of the treated patients, it also reduced the rate of flare-ups – which include fever, painful joints, fatigue and rashes – and lessened the need for steroids.

“There is now a strong body of evidence demonstrating the benefit of anifrolumab, and we look forward to bringing this potential new medicine to patients with systemic lupus erythematosus as soon as possible,” says Mene Pangalos, the executive vice president of BioPharmaceutical R&D.

Even when no virus infection can be found, recent studies show the vast majority of lupus patients produce excess Type 1 interferon, which is an immune protein linked to the development of white blood cells.

Previous attempts to block this protein have failed, but anifrolumab blocks the receptors for this protein instead and not the molecule itself.

Another clinical trial that tested this drug, called TULIP-1, couldn’t support any particular benefits based on its specific method, although there were signs that it might help improve the health of certain organs.

The smaller second trial has now explored this second outcome further – known as the British Isles Lupus Assessment Group–based Composite Lupus Assessment (BICLA) – and the results look much more promising.

Unlike TULIP-1, TULIP-2 showed benefits on both the BICLA and SRI index.

“Measurement of treatment response in [systemic lupus erythematosus] has been very problematic and this represents a kind of second breakthrough of this trial,” says rheumatologist and lead researcher Eric Morand from Monash University.

It’s still unclear why TULIP-1 and TULIP-2 produced different results, especially since they were nearly identical. But an accompanying editorial explains they might have differed because various elements of lupus were weighted differently. One of the assessments, for example, only captures partial responses while another only captures complete responses.

“Therefore, the effect of a drug on particular disease features may produce superior results with one end point and not another,” the editorial reads.

So far, three clinical trials in total have tested anifrolumab, and the results for five of the six outcomes favoured the drug over the placebo. Given the desperate need for treatment, many in the lupus community are urging regulators to consider trials that allow greater flexibility in defining success.

“For example,” the authors of the editorial write, “perhaps a benefit with respect to just one of two end points — the SRI or the BCLA — needs to be observed to declare a drug effective in this complex disease.”

This could accelerate drug development until we know better what response measures and biomarkers are most useful when trialling lupus medication.

More research is needed for anifrolumab before we can say for sure whether its benefits outweigh its side-effects in the long run. Some patients taking the drug were more at risk of bronchitis and upper respiratory infection and the risks beyond 52 weeks are still unclear.

“As clinicians we need new medicines for this complex and difficult-to-treat disease,” says Morand.

“These exciting results from the TULIP 2 trial demonstrate that, by targeting the type I interferon receptor, anifrolumab reduced disease activity in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus.”

The study was published in NEJM.

Perseverance for Goals Can Help Fight Mental Health Problems, 18-Year Study Finds

Good new research on treating mental health problems without the use of drugs is out.

People who don’t give up on their goals (or who get better over time at not giving up on their goals) and who have a positive outlook appear to have less anxiety and depression and fewer panic attacks, according to a study of thousands of Americans over the course of 18 years. Surprisingly, a sense of control did not have an effect on the mental health of participants across time.

The study was published by the American Psychological Association in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

“Perseverance cultivates a sense of purposefulness that can create resilience against or decrease current levels of major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder,” said Nur Hani Zainal, MS, from The Pennsylvania State University and lead author of the study. “Looking on the bright side of unfortunate events has the same effect because people feel that life is meaningful, understandable and manageable.”

Depression, anxiety and panic disorders are common mental health disorders that can be chronic and debilitating and put a person’s physical health and livelihood at risk, according to Zainal and her co-author, Michelle G. Newman, PhD, also of The Pennsylvania State University.

“Often, people with these disorders are stuck in a cycle of negative thought patterns and behaviors that can make them feel worse,” said Newman. “We wanted to understand what specific coping strategies would be helpful in reducing rates of depression, anxiety and panic attacks.”

Zainal and Newman used data from 3,294 adults who were studied over 18 years. The average age of participants was 45, nearly all were white and slightly fewer than half were college-educated. Data were collected three times, in 1995 to 1996, 2004 to 2005 and 2012 to 2013. At each interval, participants were asked to rate their goal persistence (e.g., “When I encounter problems, I don’t give up until I solve them”), self-mastery (e.g., “I can do just anything I really set my mind to”) and positive reappraisal (e.g., “I can find something positive, even in the worst situations”). Diagnoses for major depressive, anxiety and panic disorders were also collected at each interval.

People who showed more goal persistence and optimism during the first assessment in the mid-1990s had greater reductions in depression, anxiety and panic disorders across the 18 years, according to the authors.

And throughout those years, people who began with fewer mental health problems showed more increased perseverance toward life goals and were better at focusing on the positive side of unfortunate events, said Zainal.

“Our findings suggest that people can improve their mental health by raising or maintaining high levels of tenacity, resilience and optimism,” she said. “Aspiring toward personal and career goals can make people feel like their lives have meaning. On the other hand, disengaging from striving toward those aims or having a cynical attitude can have high mental health costs.”

Unlike in previous research, Zainal and Newman did not find that self-mastery, or feeling in control of one’s fate, had an effect on the mental health of participants across the 18-year period.

“This could have been because the participants, on average, did not show any changes in their use of self-mastery over time,” said Newman. “It is possible that self-mastery is a relatively stable part of a person’s character that does not easily change.”

The authors believe their findings will be beneficial for psychotherapists working with clients dealing with depression, anxiety and panic disorders.

“Clinicians can help their clients understand the vicious cycle caused by giving up on professional and personal aspirations. Giving up may offer temporary emotional relief but can increase the risk of setbacks as regret and disappointment set in,” said Zainal. “Boosting a patient’s optimism and resilience by committing to specific courses of actions to make dreams come to full fruition despite obstacles can generate more positive moods and a sense of purpose.”