banana_white_bg.jpgCamberwell Green in London will be home to Bonkersfest! on Saturday 3rd June as mental health agitators and arts collective Creative Routes host a festival that embraces every aspect of the human mind.

The festival will be kicked off by the Mayor of Southwark and the Southwark Town Crier by the firing of a banana laden cannon, while DJs, bands, artists, performers and dancers will entertain the crowds.

Also included in the line-up is a Big Top, caberet café, cinema, talking lamposts and whispering trees, all in the spirit of bringing madness to the masses.

Camberwell is a significant location because it is home to the Maudsley Hospital, the spiritual home of British psychiatry and one of the world’s leading centres for psychiatric training and research. It is also within the same NHS Trust as the Bethlem Royal Hospital – the world’s oldest psychiatric hospital, founded in 1247.

The festival aims to promote an alternative to the psychiatric view, suggesting that unusual experiences and distressing emotions are part of life’s rich tapestry rather than signs of disease or illness.

Creative Routes is run by people who have experience of the mental health system and has promoted healthier happier lives through successful and innovative arts projects and collaborations. Bonkersfest! will be one of their biggest events to date.

See you there!

Link to Bonkersfest! website.

Destructive impact

sciencenews_20060527.jpgThis week’s Science News has a cover article on the psychology, neuroscience and genetics of how violence and anti-social behaviour develops in young people.

The article examines how human biology and the influence of family and social life interact to increase the chances of violence and bullying in some, while leaving others able to control their actions despite being subject to hostile experiences.

Henry’s story highlights a theme that is attracting increasing scientific attention: Like all children, chronic troublemakers and hell-raisers respond to a shifting mix of social and biological influences as they grow. Some developmental roads arc relentlessly toward brutality and tragedy. Others, like Henry’s, plunge into a dark place before heading into the light of adjustment.

Developmentally minded researchers are now beginning to map out violence-prone paths in hopes of creating better family and school interventions. New evidence indicates that a gene variant inherited by some people influences brain development in ways that foster impulsive violence, but only in combination with environmental hardships. Other studies explore how family and peer interactions build on a child’s makeup to promote delinquency. Separate work examines ways to counteract the malign effects of bullying rituals and other types of coercion in schools.

“Violence is such a complicated issue,” Twemlow says. “There’s always a set of preconditions to violent behavior and never just one cause.”

Science News have kindly made the full article freely available online.

Link to ‘Destructive Impact’ from Science News.

Understanding consciousness easier than we think

touching_the_sun.jpgPhilosopher Alex Byrne writes about the problem of consciousness in the Boston Review. Against the current trend of labelling it ‘the hard problem’, Byrne argues that it may be easier to understand than we think.

Byrne does a fantastic job of touring us through some of the classic problems and thinkers in the area, using Thomas Nagel’s famous article on consciousness ‘What is it like to be a bat?‘ as a starting point.

The problem centres around the link between our own subjective conscious experience and the biological function of the brain, and whether it is possible to explain one in terms of the other.

You’d be hard pressed to find a better introduction to the area, and Byrne does a great job of telling an engaging story.

Link to article ‘What mind-body problem?’ (via 3QuarksDaily).
Link to Alex Byrne’s webpage (with publications online).

Wanted: eating disorder experts for Wikipedia

white_scales.jpgI’ve spent most of the last caffeine-fuelled 24 hours re-writing the Wikipedia page on anorexia nervosa which now seems to be in better shape than it was. It needs some well qualified stewards to keep an eye on it though, could this be you?

If you are a clinician, researcher or enthusiastic student with an interest in anorexia, this page could do with your input.

Otherwise, the bulimia nervosa article is in urgent need of attention, which is in a similarly poor state as the anorexia article was.

Wikipedia is currently one of the most visited sites on the internet, meaning millions of people get their information from it. The need for free, high-quality, accurate information is essential.

You could contribute your expertise to the world. Eating disorders have the highest mortality of any psychiatric disorder, so your time could literally save lives.

Unlike other forms of scientific writing, Wikipedia articles are a process rather than a product. The best pages have well-informed, open-minded and diplomatic ‘regulars’ who maintain the article in good shape, steer other contributors into best practice, and back up the information with references to academic studies.

Often this means challenging your own pre-conceptions and point-of-view (no matter how much you know) and getting a broad understanding of the subject, so the article can reflect this rounded approach.

It is an incredible learning experience, but can also be a little frustrating at times, as you meet people with a wide variety of agendas.

I’ll be keeping an eye on the anorexia article, but it also needs adopting by some specialists in the field, as I’m not an eating disorders specialist by any means.

If you’re intending to ‘adopt’ an article, it’s good practice to say hello on the discussion page and discuss your intentions as you go, and if you’ve never edited a Wikipedia page before, now’s your chance to learn.

Link to Wikipedia page on anorexia nervosa.
Link to Wikipedia page on bulimia nervosa.

Eric Kandel talks memory to Scientific American

eric_kandel.jpgNobel prize winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel is featured on Scientific American’s weekly podcast where he discusses his past and current work and his speculations for the future of brain research.

Kandel has just published his autobiography In Search of Memory (ISBN 0393058638) which has got positive reviews in both the mainstream press and scientific journals.

He was also recently interviewed for Science and the City, where you can also get audio and video and a Q&A session with Kandel, and read Chapter 4 of his book.

Link to Scientific American podcast page.
mp3 of Scientific American interview.

Why sex matters for neuroscience

man_woman_sign.jpgNeuroscientist Larry Cahill has written an in-depth review article for Nature Reviews Neuroscience arguing that understanding the difference between men and women is essential if we are to fully comprehend brain function and behaviour.

Traditionally, research in this area focused largely on sex behaviour, and it has only been during the last decade when the sex differences have been found in other areas.

Cahill notes that this includes “emotion, memory, vision, hearing, processing faces, pain perception, navigation, neurotransmitter levels, stress hormone action on the brain and disease states. Even otoacoustic emissions (audible ‘clicks’ made by the inner ear) differ reliably between the sexes, being both louder and more frequent in female than male adults, children and infants”.

The review examines the increasing amount of research in this area, and dismisses some myths regarding sex differences, including the myth that sex differences are small and insigificant, and that they can largely be explained by the action of sex hormones (such as oestrogen or testosterone) on the brain.

The article is available online as an open-access paper.

Link to Cahill’s article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

Ancient hallucinogenic ayahuasca ceremony

national_geographic_ayahuasca.jpgNational Geographic sent a reporter to take part in an ancient Peruvian shamanic ritual where the hallucinogenic plant ayahuasca is used.

The article describes the reporter’s account of what sounds like a profound and terrifying experience, and discusses the culture, traditions and interest from Western science that ayahuasca has inspired.

The taking of ayahuasca has been associated with a long list of documented cures: the disappearance of everything from metastasized colorectal cancer to cocaine addiction, even after just a ceremony or two. It’s thought to be nonaddictive and safe to ingest. Yet Western scientists have all but ignored it for decades, reluctant to risk their careers by researching a substance containing the outlawed DMT. Only in the past decade, and then only by a handful of researchers, has ayahuasca begun to be studied.

At the vanguard of this research is Charles Grob, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UCLA’s School of Medicine. In 1993 Dr. Grob launched the Hoasca Project, the first in-depth study of the physical and psychological effects of ayahuasca on humans. His team went to Brazil, where the plant mixture can be taken legally, to study members of a native church, the Uni√£o do Vegetal (UDV), who use ayahuasca as a sacrament, and compared them to a control group that had never ingested the substance. The studies found that all the ayahuasca-using UDV members had experienced remission without recurrence of their addictions, depression, or anxiety disorders. In addition, blood samples revealed a startling discovery: Ayahuasca seems to give users a greater sensitivity to serotonin‚Äîone of the mood-regulating chemicals produced by the body‚Äîby increasing the number of serotonin receptors on nerve cells.

Link to article ‘Peru: Hell and Back’ with video clip (via MeFi)
Link to excellent Wikipedia page on ayahuasca.

Deep thoughts

NathW_LookUp.jpgI just found a couple of Flickr groups that have caught my imagination. The first is the ‘Brains‘ group for “fans of neuroscience, cognitive science, and other studies of how the mind and brain work”, and the second is ‘Deep Thoughts‘ which has some beautiful portraits of pensive people.

The Brains group is not without its striking images though, including this photo of ‘the apical tufts of 2 cortical layer V pyramidal cells’.

By combining the groups you can move from the level of biological action of the brain to the moment of intellectual discovery revealed on the face of the thinker.

Link to Flickr ‘Brains’ group.
Link to Flickr ‘Deep Thoughts’ group.

Illusions of taste

A curious comment just added to the discussion page of Wikipedia’s illusion entry has really got me thinking:

the beginning of the article claims that all human senses can be fooled. I’ve yet to expirence an illusion of taste/smell. i.e. something salty tasting sweet. it may follow that consumption is the ‘truest’ of human expirences… [sic] Andrew

The only example that I could find on PubMed suggests that we experience taste in areas of the mouth without taste receptors, because we are fooled by the touch sensations of the food in our mouths. I could find no similar ‘smell illusions’.

If anyone knows of any examples of taste or smell illusions I’d be very interested to hear about them.

UPDATE: There’s some great answers on the comments page. Keep ’em coming. Thanks!

Sleeping pill wakes brain-injured from coma-like state?

flat_pills.jpgControversial findings were recently published in the journal Neurorehabilitation suggesting that the insomnia drug zolpidem roused three severely brain-injured patients from the coma-like persistent vegetative state (PVS).

Zolpidem is better known by its trade name Ambien, and has also been in the news recently for causing unusual sleep behaviour such as sleep-driving.

The study published by Drs Ralf Clauss and Wally Nel reported on three patients diagnosed as being in PVS. All three were temporarily but reliably roused after being given the drug each morning over a period of 3 to 6 years.

It has been suggested, however, that the patients may not have genuinely been in PVS, as this state is thought to be misdiagnosed in up to 40% of cases.

Even if these patients were misdiagnosed, the results would still be interesting for those hoping to find an effective treatment for people who have chronic problems with arousal after brain-injury.

Furthermore, the fact that the treatment was consistent over such a long period is promising. Nevertheless, the drug will need to be tested in comprehensive clinical trials to show that the treatment is widely beneficial and the improvement in these patients was not due to person-specific factors.

Link to abstract of study.
Link to write-up from New Scientist.

2006-05-26 Spike activity

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


Mixing Memory looks at research on how much children believe from what they’re told.

Canine Epilepsy Guardian Angels! No really.

A strangely vague news story suggests that measuring ‘brainwaves’ (EEG / MEG?) explains how optical illusions trick the mind. More details gratefully received.

Smile! You’re on CogSci camera! Researcher aims to record every waking hour of his child’s first three years to study development of speech. More details at this pdf.

BPS Research Digest reports that the individual characteristics of therapists may have more influence on outcome than type of therapy.

Cognitive Daily reports on the immensely cool SNARC effect.

What would be the psychological strain of immortality?

Developing Intelligence picks up on a video lecture on the mathematics of visual hallucinations.

Japanese War Tuba Hack

Via, the Japanese War Tuba Hack! (Or maybe we’ll call it “improve sound localisation by increasing interaural distance” or something).

Similarly the way your visual system calculates depth from the different images that your two eyes get, you use the difference in when sounds arrive at your ears to calculate their location. Bigger distance between the ears means bigger differences in arrival times, means more sensitivity in detecting sound location. How do you increase the distance between the ears? Ear horns! Don’t they look great?


More here and here

New brain scan detects ‘instant’ biological changes

LeBihan_diffusion_scan.jpgBrain Ethics have picked up on a new development in fMRI brain scanning technology that has the potential to detect fast changes in brain activity.

Research just published by neuroscientist Denis Le Bihan and his team has found that changes in brain activation can be detected by measuring water diffusion through neurons.

This type of water diffusion is thought to reflect the activity of the cells, but crucially, it seems it provides a more direct and quicker measure of brain activity than conventional methods.

The majority of fMRI studies use a measure of how oxygen-rich certain areas of the brain are, as it is well known that more active areas take more oxygen from the blood.

One disadvantage, is that this Brain Oxygen Level Dependent (BOLD) measure is relatively slow. It only seems to kick in 1-2 seconds after a brain area has been active and peaks up to 5 seconds later.

The new method from Le Bihan’s team has the potential to improve this process but there are still many unanswered questions, including exactly how the measure of water diffusion relates to the known activities of single neurons or synapses.

Link to ‘An fMRI revolution?’ from Brain Ethics.
Link to abstract of Le Bihan and colleagues’ study.

Psychedelic researcher Alexander Shulgin at 81

shulgin_tree.jpgThe Sunday Herald sent a reporter out to meet legendary chemist and psychedelic researcher Alexander Shulgin to discuss life, love and phenethylamines.

Shulgin has been the world’s foremost researcher of psychedelic compounds for many decades and has written about his research in several engaging books, including the notorious Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved.

The Sunday Herald finds him still with a huge enthusiasm for his work and eager to continue exploring.

“Primarily, it is about the conversion of a structure,” he tells me. “It’s a fun process and it’s tremendously fascinating.” He is more animated when speaking about the details of how he managed to alter a drug to change its effect than when asked about the effect those changes had when he tested the new compound on himself. In fact, for a man who has had so many psychedelic experiences, his stories of his ‘trips’ are disappointingly dull, while listening to him talk about experiments and chemical structures and hearing complex chemical names trip excitedly off his tongue is thoroughly entertaining.

“Chemistry is a music form to me,” Shulgin says and, for the past 70 years, he has been composing at a rate Beethoven would have been proud of.

Link to Sunday Herald article.
Link to Wikipedia entry on Shulgin.

John Searle on the question of consciousness

Searle_2004.jpgJohn Searle, one of the most important and controversial philosophers of mind, is featured on this week’s ABC Radio The Philosopher’s Zone discussing the question of consciousness.

Searle has been active since the 1960s and has made some of the most influential contributions to cognitive science, including the famous Chinese room thought experiment that addresses the question of whether information processing would be sufficient to account for intelligent thought.

Understandably, this has been used in arguments about the possibilities of artificial intelligence and machine consciousness.

Searle has long argued that machines cannot be conscious, and that conscious states can only be supported by biological systems.

In the programme, Searle talks about his own approach to solving the problem of consciousness, the importance of understanding neurobiology, and the dangers of getting in bed with Descartes.

mp3 or realaudio of programme.
Link to transcript.