Brain scan early detection of Alzheimer’s

hipmask.jpgA research team has announced that they have developed a brain imaging technique to detect the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease with a claimed accuracy of 78%.

The technique, named HipMask and developed by neuroscientist Lisa Mosconi and her team, uses a brain scanning technique called PET. This involves injecting weakly radioactive glucose into the blood and measuring where it accumulates in the brain.

Glucose is used as ‘fuel’ by the brain, so brain activity in a particular location can be inferred from measuring the levels of radioactivity.

Mosconi’s team have discovered that poor levels of activity in a brain area called the hippocampus, a crucial memory area, predict the onset of Alzheimer’s disease up to 9 years before standard diagnosis.

Because the hippocampus is small and hidden deep within the brain, measuring its activity has been traditionally considered quite hard, as it produces a relatively weak signal.

Mosconi’s team overcame this problem by also using an MRI scan of the brain, which gives a more accurate internal picture, to complement the PET scan, which gives a clearer measure of hippocampal function.

Link to write-up of study from from Eureka Alert.
Link to story from Yahoo News.
Link to study abstract.

Walter Freeman: Controversional lobotomy surgeon

freeman.jpgJack El-Hai, the biographer of surgeon and early lobotomy enthusiast Walter Freeman is interviewed on ABC Radio’s In Conversation.

El-Hai has written The Lobotomist: a maverick medical genius and his tragic quest to rid the world of mental illness, that follows Freeman’s life, and the history of psychosurgery – the use of brain surgery to attempt to treat mental disorder.

Freeman is now a controversial character, and many see his enthusiasm for doing literally hundreds of lobotomies as verging on abuse of vulnerable patients, whereas Freeman himself argued that his was an effective treatment for otherwise untreatable people.

One of Freeman’s most notable lobotomy patients was Rosemary Kennedy, sister of JFK – an episode El-Hai describes as “one of the worst” in Freeman’s career.

Realaudio or webpage of In Conversation on Walter Freeman.
Link to New Statesman review of El-Hai’s book.
Link to the book’s website with first chapter online.

Nine-way love

rose_girl.jpgResearchers claim to have identified nine different types of love. In reality, it is more likely that they have simply classified love in nine different ways.

For the curious however, the types include:

The “Cupid’s dart” variety, in which couples – think Antony and Cleopatra or even Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity – are swept away by blind passion.

Hedonistic love, concerned with personal and perhaps fleeting pleasure, the theme of much Hollywood film noir.

Love as the ultimate connection: an essentially romantic view.

I’m not sure whether it is the reporter or the researchers who are getting carried away there.

Call me a cynic, but I think that maybe they’ve just watched too many movies. Be thankful it wasn’t Dawson’s Creek.

Link to article ‘How do I love thee? Which of the nine ways?’

2005-06-17 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:


RedNova reviews Plotkin’s book Evolutionary Thought in Psychology.

There’s been a recent flurry of reinterest in the effect of the cat parasite toxoplasma gondii on human personality – see also PDF of related SciAm article.

Cornell lawyers discuss the legality of using brain scans in suspect interrogation (via BoingBoing).

Kid’s asthma may be linked to mothers’ depression.

Buddhist monks can control perceptual rivalry suggesting they have exceptional control over certain mind and brain processes.

Deep brain stimulation (a brain ‘pacemaker’) is being trialled to help untreatable depression (via PsyBlog).

Discussions and deliberations continue about the classification of mental disorders.

Radio programme The Connection discusses the ethics of creating consciousness – including Marvin Minsky discussing IBM’s new Blue Brain Project.

Electronic voice phenomena: A history


The Fortean Times has published an online article about EVP, or electronic voice phenomena, the experience of hearing ‘voices’ in the background of sound recordings.

The author of the piece has experienced EVP and believes the sounds to be spirits of the dead trying to communicate through the static.

Whether you believe this explanation (or think that EVP is more likely due to apophenia) the article remains a fascinating description of the history of the phenomena, most associated with parapsychologist Konstantin Raudive.

Link to article ‘Distant voices’.
Link to wikipedia entry on EVP.

NewSci on autism, free will and homo florensis

ns20050618.jpgThis week’s New Scientist has a slew of articles relevant to the mind, brain and behaviour.

The most notable is on the developing ‘autism rights’ movement, which aims to reframe autism and Asperger’s syndrome as a normal (if perhaps, less common) human variation.

This is championed by groups such as Aspies for Freedom, but has caused controversy, particularly with carers of people with autism who are more severely disabled by their condition.

New Scientist also tackles the ongoing implications of the discovery of the remains of homo florensis, the small humanoid nicknamed the ‘hobbit’.

Finally, there is an article on whether the universe is deterministic, i.e. purely ‘mechanical’ in nature, and whether this is compatible with notions of free will.

Sadly, none of these are available online, although occasionally they do appear in the days following publication. If any become available, we’ll be sure to link to them here.

Link to New Scientist table of contents.

The cognitive basis of good and evil

Michael Shermer, who writes the Skeptic column for Scientific American, and who is normally right on the mark has this to say about the concepts of Good and Evil:

‘The myth of good and evil is grounded in Christian theology and the belief that such forces exist independently of their carriers,’

You can read the full article – byline ‘It is too simple to blame evil people for horrifying acts of terror’ – <a href="
“>here. I don’t want to disagree with Shermer’s conclusions, but just nit-pick on this specific point. In effect, I think i totally disagree with the above statement – let’s call it the ‘Cultural Invention of Evil Theory’. Rather, and readers of Mind Hacks might have guessed, I believe seeing Good and Evil in the world is the result of a basis cognitive process which we we all share.

The myth of good and evil arises from a psychological bias we all have, and which in the social psychology biz is called the ‘the fundamental attribution error’. This is simply that when looking at other people’s behaviour we tend to over-emphasise inherent characteristics (eg “he didn’t do the washing up because he’s lazy”), while when looking at our own we tend to over-emphasise situational variables (“i didn’t do the washing up because i had to go to work and do lots of marking”). Why this exists is probably because although it is often wrong, it is an adaptive way to think about the causal world. When trying to understand your own behaviour it is easiest to look at the things that vary (ie the situation) and try and control that, but when looking at other people’s behaviour the major variable is which other person you are looking at. It doesn’t make it right, but it is just easier to see other people as Good, or Evil, or Lazy, or Clever than it is to take full account of the complexity of both their situation and their personality.

Surely that is sufficient reason to explain the persistence of notions of good and evil, and also helps avoid the problem of how non-Christian cultures come also to use the concepts. The cultural background just flavours a universal, a universal which arises from the information-mechanics of our cognitive apparatus.