Neuroethics Society launches

blue_bg_handshake.jpgBrain Ethics has picked up on the launch of the Neuroethics Society – a professional organisation for those interested in the ethics of neuroscience and neurological enhancement.

It is being kicked off by neuropsychologist Professor Martha Farah who is one of the pioneers in the field and wrote an influential article on neuroethics [pdf] that introduced the field to many in the mainstream of cognitive science.

The society is hoping to organise some upcoming conferences and focus some much needed attention in the increasingly pervasive influence of neurotechnology on society.

Link to Brain Ethics on launch of the Neuroethics Society.
Link to Neuroethics Society webpage.
pdf of Martha Farah’s article ‘Neuroethics: the practical and the philosophical’.

Paint It Black

paint_it_black_image.jpgPaint It Black are a hardcore punk band from Philidelphia, fronted by psychologist Dr Dan Yemin.

Yemin is a practising child psychologist who takes time out to tour and record with his band.

The band’s first album was entitled CVA, the medical abbreviation for cerebrovascular accident. This condition is better known as a stroke and is where the blood supply is interrupted to part of the brain.

The reason for this curious title was that Yemin suffered a stroke before recording the album and wrote the title track about the experience.

Yemin recovered from his stroke, recorded the second album, and is currently touring with the rest of the band.

Link to Paint It Black official website.
Link to Paint It Back myspace page.

Brain re-growth after 19 years unconscious

voss_study_dti_scan.jpgTerry Wallis, a man who was in a coma-like minimally conscious state for 19 years after a car crash, seems to have shown brain re-growth since he recovered consciousness.

A research team led by Henning Voss scanned Wallis’ brain using a technique called diffusion tensor imaging or DTI that can pick out the white matter pathways in the brain.

An image from Wallis’ DTI scan is shown on the left, and shows the connections in the rear section of the brain.

The image is shown as if we’re looking down and from the side into the brain. Note how the structures do not match on either side – often a good indicator of brain injury.

Crucially, the researchers re-scanned Wallis’ brain after 18 months and found that the density of the white matter seemed to increase over time, suggesting that his axons were regenerating. These are the long insulated fibres that connect the brain’s neurons.

When scanned using a PET scanner, the increase in white matter also seemed to match an increase in the use of glucose, suggesting greater levels of brain activity in these areas.

In the last decade it was discovered that adults can grow limited numbers of new neurons, but the regeneration of the brain’s connections is still largely unknown, and especially not in people who have suffered such severe brain injury.

Wallis was the subject of a 2005 Bodyshock documentary called The Man Who Slept For 19 Years.

Contrary to depictions in many films (where people tend to gently open their eyes and return to normality), Wallis is still markedly disabled by his brain injury and is not able to care for himself.

Wallis’ recovery is no less remarkable, however, and highlights shortcomings in the scientific understanding of both coma-like states and the neuroscience of consciousness.

UPDATE: Pure Pedantry has a great article looking at some of the background issues to do with this case, such as the exact definitions of different coma-like states. Well worth checking out.

Link to ‘Rewired brain’ revives patient after 19 years from New Scientist.
Link to write-up from The Age (thanks Kate!)
Link to full-text of scientific study.
Link to previous Mind Hacks story on minimally conscious state.

Dear Shakespeare, an update on sleep…

midsummer's_sleep.jpgShiban Ganju writes a letter to Shakespeare in 3 Quarks Daily, updating the Bard on the scientific advances in understanding sleep.

Shakespeare was obviously fascinated by sleep as many of his plays and poems contain references to sleep and dreaming, perhaps the most famous being A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Ganju also notes that Macbeth and Lady MacBeth had troubled stage 4 sleep and that King Richard had significant sleep pathologies.

Link to Shiban Ganju’s “Sleep and Insomnia, A Letter to Shakespeare”.

Recurring d√©j√† vecu causes neurological groundhog day

nyt_deja_vu.jpgThe New York Times has an excellent article on people who experience chronic déjà vu, or, more accurately déjà vécu Рthe feeling of already having lived through something.

The article discusses work by Leeds-based neuropsychologist (and blogger) Chris Moulin who was asked to investigate a recurring feeling of familiarity in Susan Shapiro’s 77 year-old mother.

He was countacted because he is one of the only people to have investigated a similar case, that of a person known as ‘A.K.P.’:

His d√©j√† vu episodes seemed to be “practically constant,” as Moulin and colleagues outlined in a 2005 paper [abstract|pdf] in the journal Neuropsychologia:

He refused to read the newspaper or watch television because he said he had seen it before. However, A.K.P. remained insightful about his difficulties: when he said he had seen a program before and his wife asked him what happened next, he replied, “How should I know, I have a memory problem!” The sensation… was extremely prominent when he went for a walk ‚Äî A.K.P. complained that it was the same bird in the same tree singing the same song… When shopping, A.K.P. would say that it was unnecessary to purchase certain items, because he had bought the item the day before.

A little ironically, the New York Times published another excellent article on déjà vu last February.

Link to article ‘Deja Vu, Again and Again’ from the New York Times.

The neuroscience of early childhood

tree_bg_baby.jpgOne I missed the other week – a fantastic edition of the Australian All in the Mind on Early Childhood and the Developing Brain.

Child neuropsychology is now becoming an increasingly important area as the once neglected field is seen as increasingly important both to understand children themselves, and how adult abilities and disorders develop.

This edition of All in the Mind looks at how neuroscientists are uncovering the neurobiological changes that take place during parental care, and how the brain can be markedly altered by abuse or neglect during the early years.

The programme takes a particularly in-depth look at research on children who were largely abandoned in Romanian orphanages during the communist era and had virtually no human contact for the first four years of their life.

Both their social and cognitive development was markedly impaired, suggested that love and attention is needed both for healthy emotional and intellectual development.

Link to transcript and audio of ‘Early Childhood and the Developing Brain’.

Freudian slips and slippers

freudian_slip.jpgFashion designer Spicy Marigold has created this alluring ‘Freudian Slip‘ for the beautiful Cassandra in your life.

This is a silk slip layered with a purposely weathered image of Freud holding (of course) a cigar. Wearable for out and about under (or over!) layers, it’d also be nice for sleep, lounging about on the (analytical) couch. Floaty and very soft.

And if that’s not your thing, you could do far worse than celebrating Freud’s 150th birthday by putting your feet up in a pair of Freudian Slippers.

Both items are available to order over the internet.

Link to Spicy Marigold’s Freudian Slip (via BB).
Link to Freudian Slippers.

Birds of a feather

grey_cats.jpgPsychiatric Times has a fascinating article on people who hoard animals – a type of compulsive hoarding.

The report is from the The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium – an professional association of researchers and clinicians who aim to better understand the condition.

A recent news report describes the sort of behaviour the association is aiming to explain:

A few years back the focus was on Marilyn Barletta, Petaluma’s so-called ‘cat woman’ who was found to have been keeping 196 cats in her home. In the past week, also in Petaluma, nearly 1,000 rats were discovered in filthy conditions in the home of Roger Dier.

And Friday, in South San Francisco, a man with a soft spot for bunnies was reported to the local humane society. When animal welfare workers arrived at his home, they discovered 80 rabbits chewing on day-old bagels and cauliflower.

The Psychiatric Times article discusses the current explanations for animal hoarding, which are a wide and varied list.

They include the idea that animal hoarders have delusional beliefs about special abilities to communicate with animals, that hoarding is an early sign of dementia, that animals may be collected for sexual gratification, that the condition may be a form of addiction and that hoarding is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Needless to say, the actual behaviour may be motivated by a wide range of factors, and one theory is not meant to explain everyone who hoards animals.

Link to article ‘People Who Hoard Animals’ (via World of Psychology).
Link to The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium webpage.

The politics of expedience

purple_pills.jpgHarvard Magazine has an article on the increasing willingness of psychiatrists to prescribe medication for distressing but relatively common life problems and whether this is blurring the boundaries between mental illness and mental health.

Using an ever-expanding arsenal of neurochemical drugs, physicians now treat variants of mood and temperament that previous generations viewed as an inescapable part of life. In an earlier era, James’s fears might have forced him to change professions. Today, the exceptionally shy and the overly anxious, the hyperactive and the chronically unhappy can seek relief from their suffering though medical intervention. And the parameters of what constitutes a “mental disorder” have swelled. An estimated 22 million Americans currently take psychotropic medications—most for relatively mild conditions.

This widespread embrace of biological remedies to life’s problems raises troubling questions for psychiatry. Paradoxically, even though psychopharmaceutical sales have soared in the United States during the past 20 years, only half of those with severe disorders receive adequate treatment. Clinicians and researchers disagree over what the priorities of the field should be and whom they should count as mentally ill. Are we over-treating the normal at the expense of the truly disturbed? Can we adequately distinguish illness from idiosyncrasy, disease from discontent? And are we allowing pharmaceutical companies and insurers to define the boundary between illness and health?

Freud famously made a distinction between unhappiness and mental illness, and wanted his therapy to transform “hysterical misery into common unhappiness”.

As with many medical treatments (such as plastic surgery), mind-altering drugs are now being used on those without previously recognisable medical problems in an attempt to improve quality of life.

So-called ‘smart drugs’, ‘cognitive enhancers’ and the use of psychiatric drugs to help with life stresses are examples of something psychiatrist Peter Kramer has called “cosmetic pharmacology”.

The Harvard Magazine article looks at whether this trend is actually negatively affecting the understanding and treatment of major mental illness, and warping the diagnostic systems upon which psychiatry relies.

Link to article ‘Psychiatry by Prescription’ via (3Quarks).

Alternate neuroscience writing carnival

white_keyboard.jpgEncephalon is neuroscience carnival to which anyone can submit their online writing to be featured in the forthcoming edition.

It will run on alternate weeks to Synapse, so there should be two fascinating digests of mind and brain writing for your viewing pleasure.

The first edition of Encepahlon is due to appear on the Neurophilosopher’s Blog on Monday.

Check out the Encephalon webpage for details of how to submit your writing.