Dalai Lama controversy continues

dalai_lama_small.jpgAs previously reported on Mind Hacks, neuroscientist Jianguo G. Gu started an online petition protesting the Dalai Lama’s forthcoming lecture on neuroscience and meditation to the Society for Neuroscience’s Annual Conference.

Now, the case for supporting the Dalai Lama’s appearance has been made, with an online petition supporting the invitation of the Buddhist religious leader.

The new petition has been by neuroscientist and autism researcher Matthew Belmonte.

The biology of sexual arousal and orientation

pride_flag.jpgThe Boston Globe has an exceptionally well researched article on the biology and neuropsychology of homosexuality.

While the search for a single ‘gay gene’ in humans has pretty much been abandoned, a substantial amount of work is now being conducted into the role of genetic factors and the time spent in the womb on sexuality.

One study, conducted by biologist Alan Sanders, is recruiting gay men with gay brothers to investigate any molecular genetic contributions to sexual orientation.

Other research is beginning to find a difference between sexual preference and sexual arousal. Early results suggest that for males, sexual arousal and sexual preference is strongly correlated (men prefer the sex that is capable of arousing them), whereas women are more capable of being aroused by either sex, despite the fact that they may be attracted to only one.

Some studies have found differences in brain structure between gay and straight men. In particular, a small area of the hypothalamus (known to be involved in sexual motivation) was found to differ in size in a controversial 1991 post-mortem study by neuroscientist Simon LeVay.

Link to Boston Globe article ‘What Makes People Gay?’.

PTSD and combat stress


The BBC have created an in-depth website dedicated to understanding war-related PTSD and combat stress.

In retrospect, there are accounts of combat stress from as far back as ancient times, although the long-term effects of combat-related trauma were first taken seriously as ‘shell shock’ during World War One.

The psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers was one of the pioneers in understanding and treating these extreme combat reactions. His real-life treatment of the war poet Seigfried Sassoon was the subject of Pat Barker’s the Booker prize winning novel Regeneration.

The BBC website charts the history of the conditon, and includes audio, images and stories from those affected by PTSD, including soldiers and their doctors and relatives.

Treatments for the combat trauma are also discussed, and several people have added their own experiences of combat stress to the website, illustrating the journalists angle with real-life accounts.

Link to BBC World Combat Stress website.
Link to information on PTSD.

Co-operative mind-brain weblog

neurodudes.jpgNeurodudes is a psychology and neuroscience blog with a difference – it allows readers to login and post their own stories.

The site’s regulars, Neville Sanjana and Bayle Shanks, make sure there’s always a wide variety of new material on the site, while significant additions from guest contributors provide pointers to some of the more obscure and interesting stuff in the online brain science world.

Recent posts include a breathless post from a guy inviting people to discuss the classic neuroscience text Ion Channels of Excitable Membranes and an elegant synopsis of a paper on the interaction between action and vision in the brain.

Link to neurodudes.com

2005-08-12 Spike activity

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


Threaten a man’s masculinity, and he’s more likely to support the war in Iraq, want to ban gay marriage and buy an SUV. Makes you wonder what George Bush’s homelife is like…

New York Times reviews Clancy’s book on the psychology of self-confessed alien abductees.

Meanwhile, the The Guardian asks where have all the aliens gone?

An audience participation play at the Edinburgh Festival about a traumatic therapy session has employed a psychologist in case anyone gets traumatised!

Thoughts reads‘ via brain scans (should be ‘Journalists’ bamboozled via brain scans).

Simon Baron-Cohen outlines his systematising / empathising theory in the New York Times.

The Register report on the recent artificial intelligence conference in Edinburgh.

Mixing Memory on how word gender affects how people think.

Remote control humans!

The 2005 World Memory Championships

memory championships.jpgThis weekend, the World Memory Championships are coming to Oxford University. The event is being hosted by the UK Festival of the Mind, which involves lectures from memory champions and experts on advanced learning techniques.

On the BBC Radio Four Today programme this morning, Dominic O’Brien, eight times World Memory Champion, demonstrated his ability to remember the order of a shuffled pack of cards, after just a few minutes studying them. You can listen to the item again here.

In recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have begun studying superior memory and memory feats, although the area is relatively neglected compared with the study of memory deficit.

In 2002 Dr. Eleanor Maguire at UCL’s Functional Imagaing Lab in London used fMRI scanning to compare the brain structure and function of 10 memory champions with that of 10 healthy controls. To find out what they discovered, read on by clicking below.

Continue reading “The 2005 World Memory Championships”

Pulp symptoms

psychoanalysis_comic.jpgDuring a tide of public concern about the effect of comics on children, in 1955 EC Comics created a series of new ‘more wholesome’ titles. One of which, was a four part comic series about psychoanalysis.

The public concern was largely in response to the views of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham. He argued, in his book Seduction of the Innocent, that the gaudy comics of the time were a major cause of juvenile delinquency.

Themes of sex, drugs and violence were supposedly represented subliminally in the stories and artwork of popular titles.

This sparked a Congressional inquiry which eventually led to comic book companies toning down their material, despite the unlikely nature of Wertham’s claims.

One result was that EC Comics produced comics about more ‘respectable’ topics, such as hospital medicine, or in this case, psychoanalysis.

The Psychoanalysis series depicts the therapy sessions of three people: a troubled young boy whose father thinks he’s a “sissy”, an anxiety ridden woman with a recurring dream, and a television writer who has panic attacks and is frustrated in his job.

Interestingly, another EC Comics series, M.D., also touches on mental distress. In M.D. #3 a suicidal man is diagnosed with manic depression, taken to hospital, sedated and given electroshock therapy. Supposedly, this makes him ‘forget’ his depression which is blamed on his argumentative parents.

Critics have noted that psychiatry is poorly represented in these stories, although they do give a fascinating insight into 1950s attitudes towards people with mental illness and their treatment.

Despite the fact mental illness is a recurring theme in many contemporary comics, few modern titles have attempted to seriously educate their readers about mental health issues.

brainchip_pic.jpgOne exception is The Secret of the Brain Chip, which is aimed at people who have experienced, or are experiencing, a psychotic episode.

It describes the experiences of Paul, a young man who comes to believe that there is a chip in his brain, implanted by scientists to control his thoughts.

He begins hearing voices and becomes paranoid, and is eventually admitted to hospital and is prescribed antipsychotic medication, which helps him recover and even, in the last frame, get the girl.

The story is interspersed with facts about psychosis, and notes several famous people who have also become psychotic.

The comic largely explains psychosis in biological terms (a ‘chemical imbalance’) and warns patients not to stop taking their medication.

Those of a slightly cynical nature might note, however, that it is partly funded by pharmaceutical company and producer of antipsychotics Janssen-Cilage.

Link 1 and Link 2 to info on Psychoanalysis comic series.
Link to info on M.D. #3.
Link to article on representation of madness in Batman.

Mental illness, the media and stigmatisation

newspaper_reader.jpgThe latest issue of open-access medical journal PLoS Medicine has two articles discussing the campaign to destigmatise schizophrenia, and the role of the media in communicating health information.

The first article notes that social stigma, rather than the effects of the condition itself, has been found to be the greatest problem facing people diagnosed with schizophrenia.

The authors examine the effectiveness of campaigns that have tried to tackle the problem, such as the World Psychiatric Association’s Open The Doors campaign.

Such campaigns are controversial in some quarters, however, as they are often based on communicating the idea that schizophrenia is a ‘treatable brain illness‘.

Some research has shown that providing members of the public with a medical or biological explanation for schizophrenia leads people to think of affected individuals as more dangerous and unpredictable than when a social or psychological explanation is given. There is some evidence that a similar effect occurs for professionals.

This might suggest that campaigns based on the biological explanations might have the opposite of the intended effect, although opponents to this view argue that mental illness undoubtedly has a biological component, and education should focus on freeing affected individuals from stigma regardless of how their experiences are explained.

Related to this, PloS Medicine asked a number of health journalists and other professionals to discuss the role of the media in educating the public about health education. The article highlights examples of good and bad practice during recent media frenzies.

This comes in the wake of a previous article, where the ex-editor of the British Medical Journal argued that medical journals have become an “extension of the marketing arm of pharmaceutical companies”.

Link to article ‘The Global Fight against the Stigma of Schizophrenia’.
Link to article ‘What Are the Roles and Responsibilities of the Media in Disseminating Health Information?’.

Dennet on AI, intelligence and artificial paranoia

Daniel_Dennet.jpgA classic Daniel Dennett article considers a curious chapter in AI history, where researcher Kenneth Colby used the Turing Test to see whether psychiatrists could distinguish between delusional patients and his natural language paranoia simulator ‘PARRY‘.

PARRY was designed by Colby, who was both a psychiatrist and computer scientist, in an attempt to simulate the psychology of paranoia. In particular, the programme was designed to replicate paranoid delusions about being persecuted by the Mafia.

Dennett’s 1990 article, entitled “Can machines think?”, discusses whether the Turing Test is an adequate test of machine intelligence.

Dennett notes that PARRY is the only programme known to have passed the Turing Test – psychiatrists were unable to distinguish between real patients and simulated ones.

Ironically, PARRY was based on the ELIZA programme, which was designed as a text-only parody of a therapist.

Colby’s programme was the first attempt to produce a computer simulation of psychosis, a project which now typically involves artificial neural network simulations of information processing models of the mind, rather than conversational interaction.

Link to article “Can Machines Think?” (seems to have a few scanning errors).
PDF of same article.
Link to article “Simulating Psychosis”.

Eli Lilly discounts on basis of withholding information

cym_pills.jpgStay Free Daily! has an article on a contract being used by pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, which promises discounts to large purchasers of antidepressants, as long as they don’t inform physicians about certain negative information about the drug.

The Wall Street Journal have also covered the story (full text at Stay Free link):

The Cymbalta discount contract offers large purchasers of antidepressants a 5% discount, but specifies that they could lose most of that discount if they engage in, among other things, “negative D.U.R. correspondence to physicians.”

While not defined in the contract, D.U.R. is industry shorthand for “drug utilization review,” a kind of analysis of prescription patterns that insurers often use to identify inappropriate or risky practices and often also to cut costs.

Link to Stay Free Daily! story.
PDF of Eli Lilly contract.

Trippy neuroscience videos

IIIA4.jpgWaaaay back in the early 90’s, trippy videos were part and parcel of rave culture. Now with the Multimedia Neuroscience Education Project, you can relive the days of shiny rendered graphics and techno soundtracks – with a neurobiology twist!

The site, created by a collaborative team based at Williams College, explains synaptic neurotransmission – the process by which chemical signals are passed between neurons.

Four stages are described in detail: the synthesis and storage of neurotransmitters, neurotransmitter release, the role of postsynaptic receptors and the inactivation of neurotransmitters.

As well as outlining the basics of these four stages, specific examples are given to show how particular drugs use these mechanisms to take effect.

Every description has a realaudio-streamed animation to accompany the text, so you can see the process in action. And each video has a home-brew old skool soundtrack.

The videos explaining the effect of anti-anxiety drugs on GABA transmission and the mechanism of action for antipsychotic medication are two particularly fine examples.

Anyone got any veras ?

Link to the Multimedia Neuroscience Education Project.

Why we laugh…

laugh_bw.jpgThe Economist, who seem to have a run of psychology article of late, has a brief article discussing theories of why we laugh:

Why do people laugh at all? What is the point of it? Laughter is very contagious and this suggests that it may have become a part of human behaviour because it promotes social bonding. When a group of people laughs, the message seems to be “relax, you are among friends”.

But laughter does not unite us all. There are those who have a pathological fear that others will laugh at them. Sufferers avoid situations where there will be laughter, which means most places where people meet.

Link to article “Poking fun”.

Jury decides Atkins is not retarded, death sentence imposed

In the face of contradictory IQ test results, a jury has decided that convicted US murderer Daryl Atkins is not legally retarded making him liable for the death penalty. Judge Prentis Smiley has set the execution date for December 2nd.

The decision has been based on evidence from psychological testing to determine whether Atkins’ IQ is above 70. Executing people considered legally retarded (defined as a sub-70 IQ) was outlawed by the US Supreme Court in 2002.

Atkins IQ score was put at 59 when first measured, although recent tests put it at 74 and 76.

The Atkins case and construction of IQ was discussed earlier on Mind Hacks.

Link to story “Jury says Atkins isn’t retarded” from dailypress.com.

Pilot magazine for synaesthetes

syn_blocks.jpgGraphic designer Claire Mills has put together a magazine for people with synaesthesia, the uncommon condition where the senses are ‘connected’, so, for example, numbers have colours or tastes.

Claire consulted a number of people with synaesthesia to discuss her ideas about the project, and thought carefully about how layout, fonts and themes might be experienced across the senses.

The result is a proof-of-concept magazine, that documents her design process and the the numerous experiences of synaesthetes that she drew on.

Link to Claire Mills’ synaesthesia magazine (Thanks Laurie!)

2005-08-05 Spike activity

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


With all-new date-first title. I’ve realised that MovableType chops the URL of each post, so every ‘Spike activity’ had the same URL. Hopefully, we should be fixed…

Science News has a feature article on how pharmaceutical companies influence doctors’ drug prescriptions.

Wired discuses research on how ‘mental workouts‘ are being found to maintain mental sharpness in some.

Fantastic article from Harvard Review on the function of sleep and the work on leading sleep neuroscientist Robert Stickgold.

Story and video report on research showing that cognitive therapy reduces repeat suicide attempts by half (via PsyBlog).

Psychiatric polypharmacy, the practice of prescribing more than one medication to treat a condition, is being widely practised on US children.

The Economist discusses how describing financial markets as if they were alive, changes predictions made about them.

People with severe mental illness and more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, finds recent study.

Apple co-branding with cognitive neuroscience?

neurolens_brain.jpgApple seems to be targeting a new advert at neuroscientists. Dr Nouchine Hadjikhani is featured in the promotion, although at closer inspection, the intended audience are more likely to be people dazzled by the bright lights of brain scanning.

The ad is interesting in that it touts her Apple system as a “vital tool” in her research, although the main selling point seems to be that it runs a free software programme used in brain scan analysis called NeuroLens.

NeuroLens, although respected, is not widely used at present, largely due to the domination of SPM. SPM is also free software, and although it requires a commercial copy of Matlab, it runs on Mac, Windows Linux and other sorts of Unix.

One of the reasons given by Dr Hadjikhani for preferring MacOS is that she is ‘challenged by the command line’, despite the fact that the ad claims she uses NeuroLens before ‘delving into extensive data analysis on her Linux systems’.

“Using UNIX at the command line is time consuming and you have to remember a number of things”, she says, although I suspect her job as a cognitive neuroscientist means she’s quite used to remembering ‘a number of things’ on a daily basis.

They conveniently neglect to say that MacOS is Unix and that Linux isn’t just the command line.

For cognitive neuroscientists, Apple seem to be advertising their systems on the back of (admittedly very attractive) free software, and hoping to use the leverage of Mac only software to get a foot in the door of a largely Apple-free science.

I suspect the ad is more likely to be targeted at executives, however, who want to be seen to be using systems that serious scientists use.

Co-branding with neuroscience, along with other ‘hot topic’ sciences, might be a policy which would go down well with those worried about being seen with an “artist’s” computer on their desk.

Link to Wikipedia page on brain scan analysis and SPM.
Link to NeuroLens software.
Link to Apple ad (via BrainBlog).