2005-10-28 Spike activity

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


Interactive websites can significantly help people with chronic illness (via Slashdot)

“Your brain’s sex can make you ill” says clumsy BBC headline, hiding a story about tailoring treatments by sex.

Chronic nicotine and alcohol consumption seem to have a ‘double whammy‘ on mental function.

Cool visual illusions that change on distance of viewing (via BoingBoing).

Email users and victorian letter writers share similarities in frequency of replying.

People with schizophrenia not fooled by certain optical illusions.

Wired features a story by a deaf man as he gets a cochlear implant to restore his hearing.

Cognitive Daily discuss research on why experts have better memory for their field of expertise.

The addicted brain

drugs.jpgDoes an alcoholic have a disordered brain or a flawed character? The latest issue of Nature Neuroscience contains a special focus supplement on addiction that is freely available online for the next three months.

The Focus contains the latest reviews and commentaries on the neuroscience of addiction, including discussion of the changes caused by drugs to brain circuits and synapses; the cortical and sub-cortical brain areas that mediate the reinforcing effect of drugs; how drugs affect people’s decision making, tipping the balance in their consideration of immediate rewards weighed against future costs; the genetic influences on personality traits that predispose people to addiction; as well as consideration of the social stigma of addiction and the difficulties of developing effective treatments.

Link to Focus table of contents (all free until Jan’ 06)

NewSci on creativity

newsci_20051029.jpgToday’s New Scientist is a special edition on creativity, tackling the subject from a number of angles.

Unfortunately, very little of it seems to be available online, so it might require a trip to the library or newsagents.

If you do get hold of a copy, however, you’ll find articles on the psychology and neuroscience of creativity, as well as tips from artists, scientists and researchers to increase your own creative output.

If you’re not able to get a copy, you may want to look at a couple of articles online from past issues of The Psychologist that discuss ‘Computer models of creativity’ (PDF) and ‘Creativity and innovation at work’ (PDF).

Link to New Scientist.
PDF of article ‘Computer models of creativity’.
PDF of article ‘Creativity and innovation at work’.

Criminal and forensic psychology on the web

murder_outline.jpgCrimePsychBlog has been keeping my attention over recent weeks as it keeps tabs on the world of forensic and criminal psychology.

It’s regularly updated with developments from the world of forensic cognitive science, and with snippets from the mainstream news that has a criminal psychology angle.

Recent posts include an account of false memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus taking the stand in a recent murder trial, the controversy over whether hypnosis can improve witnesses’ memory and a pointer to an article on ‘What makes terrorists tick?‘.

Link to CrimePsychBlog.

Perceptual distortions are common in population

pretty_colours.jpgResearchers from Cardiff University report that anomalies of sensation and perception are common in the general population, with more than 1 in 10 reporting higher levels than the average of patients diagnosed with psychosis.

The research project was inspired by a need for a comprehensive measure of anomalous sensory experience and perceptual distortion, as the majority of existing measures are derived from psychiatric assessment techniques.

Consequently, they often focus on specific forms of perceptual distortion, such as ‘visions’ or ‘voices’, and do not always cover other types of anomalous experience.

To tackle this problem the researchers designed, tested and validated, a new measure of anomalous perceptual experience that specifically uses non-clinical language to ask about a wide range of phenomena, including unusual touch sensations, changes in time perception and being unable to distinguish one sensation from another.

Sensory distortions are traditionally associated with mental or neurological illness, although recent work is now suggesting that unusual experiences are distributed throughout the population (this is known as the ‘continuum model of psychosis’).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when patients with psychosis completed the measure high levels of unusual experience were reported.

It is not clear, however, why some people with high levels of unusual experiences become distressed and impaired by their experiences, often leading to a diagnosis of mental illness, while others are able to function and remain untroubled by them.

One possibility is that there might be different sources for different types of unusual experience. When the types of experiences reported by healthy individuals in the study were analysed for how they clustered together, three themes emerged.

One cluster was associated with relatively benign smell and taste experiences, another with experiences potentially related to temporal lobe disturbance and another with experiences traditionally linked to psychosis.

This suggests that the distribution of perceptual distortions found in the population may be driven by a number of underlying processes, all which might contribute to producing strange experiences in the individual.

The research is published as an open-access paper in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin.

Disclaimer: This paper is from my own research group.

Possible explanation for premenstrual moodiness

mood_girl.jpgNew Scientist is reporting that the ‘moodiness’ experienced by some women during the premenstrual phase of the menstrual cycle may be linked to the function of the orbitofrontal cortex.

The oribitofrontal cortex (OFC), the part of the brain that lies just above the eyes, is known to be involved in emotional regulation.

The research, led by (the wonderfully named) Xenia Protopopescu from Cornell University, brain-scanned 12 women who did not experience mood changes during their menstrual cycle.

They found that an area in the OFC increased in activity when participants reacted to emotionally-laden words during an experimental task when in their premenstrual phase.

Crucially, there was less recorded activity for the same task when it was completed during the post-menstrual phase, suggesting emotional regulation was most needed during the earlier, premenstrual period, to maintain a steady mood.

The researchers have suggested that women who experience fluxations in mood during their cycle may not have such effective emotional regulation, although the exact mechanism of how the hormonal changes affect the function of the brain is still unclear.

The complexity of the issue is highlighted by the finding that other, more dispersed areas of the OFC, showed the opposite pattern of activity during the same experiment.

Link to New Scientist article.
Link to abstract of academic paper.

Childhood trauma and schizophrenia

Continuing the schizophrenia theme – the latest issue of the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica is a special edition on the link between childhood trauma and schizophrenia.

The new findings support the argument for a bio-psycho-social approach to psychosis and come in the wake of a recent article in Psychiatric News, published by the American Psychiatric Association, about the overmedicalisation of psychiatry, and an article in the October issue of The Psychologist, published here in the UK, subtitled ‘what happened to the ‘psycho’ and ‘social’ in explanations of mental illness?’.

If you don’t have access to the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, Oliver James wrote an essay in Saturday’s Guardian on the new findings and their implications for the treatment of schizophrenia. For example, he says that a review of 13 studies found that between 51 to 97 per cent (depending on the study) of people diagnosed with schizophrenia had previously suffered sexual or physical abuse. His essay says the new findings will shake the intellectual foundations of the psychiatric establishment like an earthquake.

Update:A report on one of the papers from this special issue of Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica now appears on the BPS Research Digest here

Schizophrenia featured article on Wikipedia

Schizophrenia is today’s featured article on wikipedia and already activity has hit fever pitch.

It’s an article I’ve been quite heavily involved with over the last few years, and it has proved as much a project in diplomacy and fire fighting as it has in understanding the science and history of this complex diagnosis.

There are many contrasting (and at times conficting) views of schizophrenia and trying to balance all of these approaches to produce a rounded article has been an ongoing mission for the various regular editors of the article.

The article discussion page is full of some of the more memorable and ill-informed additions, including “Medication skipping schizos murder people everywhere” and someone threatening to contact CNN if their edits weren’t included.

Since it has been posted to the front page it has been the subject of both incisive and clarifying edits, as well as vandalism and unfounded sloganism.

Isn’t the internet great ? :/

Link to wikipedia entry on Schizophrenia.

Dreams made real

slowwave_panel.jpgArtist Jesse Reklaw takes people’s descriptions of their dreams and turns them into beautifully pencilled four panel comic strips on her website SlowWave.com.

Interesting, Jesse also asks for a physical description of the person submitting the dream, so she can include their likeness into the story.

The archives are wonderfully offbeat and suitably surreal.

My favourites include a dream about going to a bar to hire drunken body parts and one about finding the subway full of penguins. A new dream is uploaded every week.

Link to SlowWave.com

2005-10-21 Spike activity

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


New York Times on ‘Life Hackers‘ researching the interaction between humans and computers.

Neuroscientist Mike Merzenich interviewed on whether new technology is making us more intelligent or less.

Children born prematurely are to be studied to see how their brains adapt to damage.

Great article by Carl Zimmer on the new paper in the controversy over whether the ‘hobbit’ is a new species of human or person with microcephaly.

More on Clancy’s psychological research on self-confessed alien abductees.

BBC Radio 4 science programme Material Word on the development of music and language.

Mapping of immigation patterns in US show family, not economic reasons, are strongest influence.

Implant for deaf and hearing-impaired designed to boost music appreciation.

Vastly oversimplified neuroscience used to sell dating service.

Sociology focus for ‘Thinking Allowed’

laurie_taylor.jpgBBC Radio 4 programme Thinking Allowed seems to have changed its focus and now concentrates on sociology.

Previously, it billed itself as “weekly discussion on topical issues of academic concern” but now seems to be advertised as discussing the “latest social science research”.

In this series it has covered topics ranging from the social influence of the pharmaceutical industry to the role of sociology in public life.

The BBC’s biography for the presenter, Laurie Taylor, also makes interesting reading. As well as being a Professor of Sociology, Taylor has previously been a teacher, actor and librarian.

Link to Thinking Allowed website and realaudio archives.

High strength magnetic pulses alter touch sense

rTMS2.jpgOpen-access science journal PLoS Biology reports that high strength magnetic pulses, targetted at a specific area of the brain, can make areas of the body more sensitive to touch.

The use of focused magnetic pulses to stimulate the brain, a technique known as transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS, is now becoming commonplace in neuroscience research.

It allows researchers to slightly alter the function of a brain area using a hand held magnetic coil. The resulting changes can hopefully be detectable using behavioural or psychological measures.

Like most neuroscience studies, research projects using this technique start by wondering whether a particular brain area is necessary for a particular type of mental activity or behaviour.

Unlike other techniques, such as brain scanning – that typically only find correlates of thought or behaviour – TMS allows researchers to make causal inferences. In other words, they can judge whether the area they are targetting is involved in causing the thought or action to occur.

Traditionally, TMS is used in research to safely inhibit or disrupt function in a brain area for a short period of time. More recently, it has been found that TMS (particularly when given in ‘trains’ or repetitive bursts) can be reliably used to increase activation in brain areas, over longer time periods.

The PloS Biology study targetted an area of the brain involved in somatosensory functions (mainly touch and body image) and found that they could increase skin sensitivity on the finger, when they aimed for the brain area that holds the ‘finger map’.

Link to PLoS Biology summary.
Link to story from nature.com.
Link to PLoS Biology full text paper.

Brain scans, mental illness and false promises

Iacoboni_fMRI.jpgThe New York Times has an insightful article on the utility of brain scans for helping and treating people with mental illness.

Mental illness is diagnosed on the basis of a clinical interview, where the clinician interviews the patient and encourages them to explain aspects of their first-person experience.

This means that the criteria for diagnosis, although internationally agreed upon, are subjective – in that it is the clinician who decides whether they are present or not.

For example, the DSM criteria for clinical depression include items such as depressed mood, loss of pleasure, feelings of guilt and low self-esteem. None of these can be measured objectively.

When brain scans arrived, particularly those that measured brain function, it was hoped that there would finally be an objective test for many mental disorders based on the biology of the brain.

There has been some success in finding biological differences between the brains of healthy and diagnosed individuals. The problem is that these differences are not reliably diagnostic.

For example, when a group of people with depression and without depression are compared, reliable differences in brain function can be found. However, this only reflects the fact that individuals with the diagnosis are more likely to show the difference, but there are also individuals with the diagnosis who do not have the same differences.

This also ignores the fact that the diagnosis and definition of mental illness are often culturally influenced. The fact that homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association until 1973 is a notorious example.

Another complication is that there is often an element of subjective decision making in analysing brain scans – to produce the familiar ‘brain images’ we are used to seeing.

The media often miss many of these subtleties, portraying brain scans as more impressive than many scientists give them credit for.

The New York Times article, therefore, does an admirable job of tackling some of these issues and outlining the promises and pitfalls of the neuroscience of mental disorder.

This comes at a time when psychiatry is looking beyond the current diagnostic manuals as the sole definition of mental disorder, and considering the concept of the ‘endophenotype‘ – measurable aspects of biology thought to be the key underlying components that increase risk for mental disorder.

Link to New York Times article ‘Can Brain Scans See Depression?.
Link to academic paper on the ‘endophenotype’ concept.