Wanted: happy people

'Normal' folks needed in study aimed at fighting depression

Austin Fitts wears specially designed head gear that records how he reacts to certain words. A psychological study at Kansas University is looking at how people with depression process words differently from people without depression. KU psychologists hope to use their findings to better identify those at risk for depression. Their research is the subject of a three-year, 50,000 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Ruthann Atchley is looking for 30 adults – young and old – who’ve managed to live happy, normal lives.

“We have money to pay them,” she said.

Atchley, a psychology professor at Kansas University, is working on a research project aimed at learning how people with depression process words differently from those who have not battled the disorder.

Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center has put her in contact with people who are dealing with depression.

But she doesn’t have a way to randomly find participants for a depression-free control group.

“We need people,” she said.

Participants will be paid $12 an hour for two, two-and-a-half-hour sessions now and two more in about three months.

The sessions involve being hooked to a machine that measures brain waves while responding to words and images on a computer screen. The process is painless and does not involve electrical current.

Studies have found that while negative words register with a depressed person’s brain, positive words are dismissed.

“If we give people sentences to read – like ‘I am a loser,’ ‘I am a winner,’ and ‘I am a wagon’ – it’s obvious that wagon is nonsense,” Atchley said. “But a depressed person’s brain responds to wagon the same way it responds to winner.”

That’s because both words – winner and wagon – are unexpected, said Steve Ilardi, a KU psychology professor who’s partnering with Atchley on the project.

“If you read a sentence like ‘This pizza is too hot to cry,’ the word ‘cry’ would trigger a telltale brain-wave pattern that says ‘I wasn’t expecting that,'” Ilardi said.

Unexpected words, he said, are processed differently from those that are expected.

“So if a depressed person reads a sentence ‘I am a success,’ the word ‘success’ triggers a brain-wave pattern showing the patient doesn’t see himself that way at all,” Ilardi said. “If the person isn’t depressed, the brain-wave reaction will be just the opposite.”

Ilardi and Atchley hope to use their findings to better identify people at risk for depression. Their research is the subject of a three-year, $650,000 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Do you qualify?

To qualify for the depression-free control group, participants must:

¢ Have 20:20 vision – with or without corrective lenses – in both eyes.

¢ Not have a history of seizures.

¢ Be between ages 18 and 65.

¢ Be right-handed.

To qualify for the depression-free control group, participants must:

¢ Have 20:20 vision – with or without corrective lenses – in both eyes.

¢ Not have a history of seizures.

¢ Be between ages 18 and 65.

¢ Be right-handed.

“For most right-handers, the left hemisphere of the brain is the dominant hemisphere for processing language,” said Genevieve Garratt, a graduate student in charge of coordinating the control group.

“It’s different for left-handers,” she said. “So we’re limiting the group to right-handers to keep from going in too many different directions.”

Anyone interested in taking part in the control group is asked to call Garratt, 764-6524.