Get your brain scanned

ShinyMRIBrain.jpgLondon’s Hammersmith Hospital want to borrow your brain – for about an hour and a half. They are building a medical database of healthy MRI brain scans to allow more accurate comparisons when assessing people with psychiatric or neurological problems.

They have a had a number of volunteers already, but are still looking for volunteers in all age ranges except females under 30.

So if you’ve never experienced mental or neurological illness, and you’re a male aged between 18 and 90, or a female aged 30 to 90 and want to see what it’s like to get your brain scanned, now’s your chance.

According to the researchers, the MRI scan itself takes about 45 minutes to an hour, and involves no radiation, no injections and doesn’t require you to do any preparation before the scan. You’ll be asked to fill out brief medical and safety questionnaires, so the total visit usually takes about 90 minutes.

If you’re interested, contact the project co-ordinator Dulcie Rodrigues at The Robert Steiner MRI Unit at Hammersmith Hospital. Tel: 020 8383 3298, or email her on dulcie.rodrigues [at]

How to improve your memory

BBC_memory_screen_logo.jpgI watched prime time BBC show How to Improve Your Memory last night and was very impressed.

Some of the Beeb’s past efforts to do popular psychology programmes have been a bit dodgy to say the least. I am still haunted by the concept of ‘brain sex’ invented by the producers of Secrets of the Sexes to describe how ‘male or female’ your brain was. You had to be there.

In contrast, How to Improve Your Memory was a comprehensive journey through memory science and also gave plenty of effective techniques to improve attention and memory.

It also included try-it-yourself exercises and experiments, and almost all were taken from the scientific literature.

Probably because of this, it was a bit dry in places, but this would easily be fixed if you were in front of the TV with the family playing along.

The show also tried to get viewers to reconsider their negative beliefs about their memory. In particular, it tried to normalise forgetting rather than portraying it as the early signs of decline, and demonstrated how memory could be improved even during later-life.

The combination of teaching new mental skills while getting people to modify their self-defeating beliefs is a common technique used in cognitive behaviour therapy to improve performance, and if it works, can also reduce how often people consult doctors for noticeable but normal cognitive changes.

I suspect this may be the BBC doing their bit for the UK government’s appallingly branded but potentially promising ‘happiness campaign‘ (really an employment campaign).

Also doing their bit were the presenters, real-life clinical psychologist Tanya Byron and real-life er, embryologist, Robert Winston.

There are plenty of activities to check out and try on the website if you missed the programme.

Link to How to Improve Your Memory webpage.

2006-08-11 Spike activity

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


Psychiatrist Peter Kramer reviews ‘Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror’ in the Washington Post.

Cognitive Daily on psychedelic sunglasses.

Could ‘ketamine therapy‘ treat depression? asks the Washington Post.

The New York Times reports on the use of the medical lunch as a drug-company marketing tool.

Seed Magazine reports on an experiment using drug induced amnesia to examine the structure of memory.

Can differences in national levels of trust be partly explained by nutrition? Zack Lynch picks up on an interesting research paper that suggests it can.

The Telegraph has a short piece on the nature of consciousness.

Does the amount of email in your inbox say anything about your personality? Let me think…

Maori people may have a higher prevalence of a gene which has been linked to aggression. Restrospectacle analyses the controversy.

Jake Young has more careful analysis on mind and brain gender differences.

PsyBlog springs back into life!

Did Antidepressants Depress Japan?

Just found this interesting New York Times article from 2004 about the introduction of the concept of depression in Japan since 1999, a country that had no such concept outside of professional psychiatry and medicine.

In the late 1980’s, Eli Lilly decided against selling Prozac in Japan after market research there revealed virtually no demand for antidepressants. Throughout the 90’s, when Prozac and other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or S.S.R.I.’s, were traveling the strange road from chemical compound to cultural phenomenon in the West, the drugs and the disease alike remained virtually unknown in Japan.

Then, in 1999, a Japanese company, Meiji Seika Kaisha, began selling the S.S.R.I. Depromel. Meiji was among the first users of the phrase kokoro no kaze [common cold of the soul]. The next year, GlaxoSmithKline — maker of the antidepressant Paxil — followed Meiji into the market. Koji Nakagawa, GlaxoSmithKline’s product manager for Paxil, explained: ”When other pharmaceutical companies were giving up on developing antidepressants in Japan, we went ahead for a very simple reason: the successful marketing in the United States and Europe.”

Direct-to-consumer drug advertising is illegal in Japan, so the company relied on educational campaigns targeting mild depression. As Nakagawa put it: ”People didn’t know they were suffering from a disease. We felt it was important to reach out to them.” So the company formulated a tripartite message: ”Depression is a disease that anyone can get. It can be cured by medicine. Early detection is important.”

Link to article ‘Did Antidepressants Depress Japan?’.

More on gender disparity

measuring_cup.jpgNeuroscientist Jake Young gets stuck into the recent debate on male-female mind and brain differences, inspired by a number of recent articles on the topic (see previously on Mind Hacks).

Jake does an excellent job of not only summarising what is known about gender differences, but looking at how large these differences are.

Sometimes in the scientific literature, any difference, no matter how small is seized upon as significant. Importantly, the extent of this difference is important for gauging what is the likely impact of the difference on the wider world.

In a subsequent article, he tackles whether there is a difference between men and women who perform particularly well.

For example, are the top 1% of women for a particular ability much different from the top 1% of men for the same ability?

Jake focuses particularly on mathematics, which has been a controversial area as it has been widely debated whether women are generally poorer at scientific-type subjects (largely started by the then president of Harvard claiming they weren’t!).

Rather than focusing on a single concept of ‘mathematical ability’, Jake focuses on what abilities maths actually needs, and breaks down the apparent and reported sex differences.

Link to article ‘Combating Injury with Information: Gender Differences in Cognition’.
Link to article ‘Debunking the Upper Tail: More on the Gender Disparity’.

Neuropsychiatry reviews

nprbrain.jpgNeuropsychiatry Reviews is a monthly magazine that covers new research and emerging trends in neuropsychiatry and neuroscience and publishes its feature articles online two weeks after the paper edition is released.

The articles are magazine-style, so don’t contain references, but typically finish with a list of further readings if you want to expand your interest into the academic literature.

Recent online editions include pieces on the brain and creativity, new approaches to treating combat-related PTSD, and how we understand the expression of emotion in the face.

There’s many more on the magazine’s homepage.

Link to Neuropsychiatry Reviews.

Pathology, plasticity and the sharpened mind

wireframe_head_light.jpgThe ever-excellent Developing Intelligence has just posted about research that suggests that certain types of brain pathology may selectively improve mental performance.

The first article reports on research that suggests that children with a history of febrile seizures (seizures or ‘fits’ caused by fever) tend to do better in school than their peers.

This is initially surprising, as seizures are traditionally associated with mental impairment if they occur frequently. As the Developing Intelligence article mentions, it is worth waiting until further evidence is gathered to be sure that this is a reliable finding, as the study uses some non-standard tests.

It does suggest the idea, however, that the brain maintains a “delicate balancing act” and that some things that may confer an advantage may also confer a risk of brain disturbances.

The second article reports that deaf people have enhanced motion sensitivity in that they can detect motion over a wider area than control participants.

Motion sensitivity is known to involve the magnocellular parts of the visual pathway. Motion sensitivity and magnocellular brain function are also known to be particularly sensitive to impairment in certain developmental conditions (such as dyslexia and autism).

The authors of the study thought that this area might, therefore, be most likely to show better performance where sensory problems (i.e. deafness) meant that vision was used to a much greater degree.

They found exactly this pattern of performance, and note that this is likely further evidence for the brain’s ‘plasticity’ – where the brain reorganises through experience.

Link to article ‘Working Memory and Convulsions’.
Link to article ‘Perceptual Enhancement Among the Deaf’.

Biological psychiatry pioneer dies

american journal of psychiatry2.GIFOne of the pioneers of biological psychiatry, Professor Joseph Schildkraut, died recently, aged 72.

“Thanks to Schildkraut, it was generally accepted that depression is a medical illness and that many mental disorders are related to imbalances in chemicals in the brain”, says his obituary that appeared in the Times.

Schildkraut laid out his ideas in the 1965 paper “The Catecholamine Hypothesis of Affective Disorders”, which became the most highly cited paper ever to appear in the American Journal of Psychiatry, and one of the most cited papers in all of psychiatry.

“He saw patients who had been unresponsive to talk therapy suddenly come alive when drugs were introduced, and he got very excited about that,” his wife, Betsy Schildkraut, told the Boston Globe.

Dr. Alan I. Green, chairman of Dartmouth Medical School’s psychiatry department told the Globe: ‚ÄúI think he was a giant in the field. I think that initial paper, perhaps more than any other, defined the psychopharmacological era.‚Äù

However, Professor Schildkraut’s death comes at a time of increasing scepticism towards the chemical imbalance model of mental illness. At a recent debate hosted by the Royal Institution, psychiatrist Joanna Moncrieff of UCL recently named the model as the worst ever idea on the mind.

In the last 15 years of his career, Professor Schildkraut studied the link between depression, spirituality and artistic creativity. He had also been committed to bringing the best medical care to people who ordinarily could not afford it.

Link to Times Obituary.
Link to abstract of The Catecholamine Hypothesis.

Sex in the brain

economic_sex_diffs_image.jpgThe debate about male-female differences has always been controversial owing to the link with social and political issues. Where science has previously feared to tread, researchers are now beginning to untangle the differences and similarities.

The Economist has an in-depth article where they summarise and discuss many of the most reliable male-female differences in psychology and dispel some of the myths about men and women being fundamentally different in the way they think.

The article also tackles differences in the structures of male and female brains, noting that male brains are, on average, 9% bigger than female brains, but that female brains tend to be more densely packed with grey matter – the cell bodies and dendrites of neurons where most of the cognitive ‘work’ is supposedly done.

The San Francisco Chronicle continues in this vein by discussing the work of Dr Louann Brizendine a neuropsychiatrist who has been researching male-female brain differences and has recently published a book on her findings.

She’s obviously trying to do a bit of PR for the book (“…talking activates the pleasure centers in a girl’s brain. We’re not talking about a small amount of pleasure. This is huge. It’s a major dopamine and oxytocin rush, which is the biggest, fattest neurological reward you can get outside of an orgasm”) but otherwise discusses some of the latest and most interesting developments in the field.

One of her particular interests is the role of hormones in brain function, both during the development of the fetus, and during childhood and adult life. This is becoming an increasing focus in neuroscience research.

A good place to start if you want a grounding in the scientific literature, is a recent article by Larry Cahill in Nature Reviews Neuroscience entitled ‘Why sex matters for neuroscience’.

Link to Economist article ‘The mismeasure of woman’.
Link to SF Chronicle article ‘Femme Mentale’.
Link to ‘Why sex matters for neuroscience’.

Institute of Psychiatry / Maudsley podcasts

earbud_headphones.jpgKing’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, the research wing of the Maudsley Hospital, has put a podcast archive of its talks, debates and symposiums online.

They include several of the Maudsley Debates where leading researchers debate some of the most controversial issues in mental health (“Schizophrenia – the ultimate delusion?”) and modern cognitive science (“this house believes that modern science has demonstrated the implausibility of an afterlife”).

Unfortunately, only one of the Aubrey Lewis Lectures is online. These are given in memory of the leading psychiatrist and invite an important researcher to give their own opinion on the state of psychiatry.

Apparently, future debates and talks will also appear online as they occur.

Link to IoP Podcast archive.

SciAmMind on neurosurgery, attention and DBS

SciAmMindAug2006.jpgScientific American Mind has just released a new issue with several articles freely available online.

The article on neurosurgery is by neurosurgeon Dr Katrina Firlik, who we interviewed back in May.

In an excerpt from her book, she discusses what influences the decision over whether to operate or not operate on a particular patient. This can include both social and person factors, as well as practical medical issues.

Another article tackles the cognitive neuroscience of attention.

Attention is one of the most widely used concepts in modern cognitive science but is remarkably difficult to pin down. The article does a great job of unpicking this technical yet intruiging area.

The print version of the magazine also contains articles on the neuroscience of fainting, diversity at work, the function of endocannabinoids (marijuana-like) neurochemicals, the teenage brain, neuroscience archaeology and the possible emotional motivations for violence.

There’s also a revealing profile of neurologist Dr Helen Mayberg’s work on deep brain stimulation (DBS) for depression by David Dobbs, who writes the Smooth Pebbles blog.

Although the article isn’t available on the SciAmMind website, a text-only version is available on Dobbs’ website.


Link to article ‘Should We Operate?’.
Link to article ‘Coming to Attention’.
Link to profile of neurologist Dr Helen Mayberg.

Area man and his endorphins

OnionEndorphinsArticle.jpgThe Onion has a funny neuroscience story that charts the struggles of a man in conflict with his troublesome hypothalamus over the need for an endorphin-based mood lift. As always it’s written in their usual laconic style.

TALLAHASSEE, FL—With tensions already at an all-time high, the nearly 96-hour standoff between area resident Anthony Shepard and his hypothalamus came to a head Monday when the 32-year-old called for the immediate release of all endorphins back into his bloodstream.

“Earlier this week, events took place between my cerebrum’s temporal lobes that can only be described as criminal,” said Shepard, who told reporters he was first saddened, then angered, abruptly overjoyed, and saddened again to hear about the complete deregulation of his emotions. “To the nefarious gland responsible for this cowardly act, I know you can hear me. I demand, in no uncertain terms, that you surrender and cease all hostilities at once.”

Link to article ‘Area Man Calls For Immediate Release Of His Endorphins’.

Five minutes with Liz Spikol

LizSpikol.jpgLiz Spikol seems to have lived many lives in one. She is currently a journalist, broadcaster and blogger, and the managing editor of the Philadelphia Weekly, one of the city’s leading independent newspapers.

She has also experienced the extremes of mood and the unreal world of psychosis, which led to her being admitted to psychiatric hospital on several occasions.

This, and the day-to-day reality of managing a chronic mental illness, inspired her to write the award-winning newspaper column The Trouble with Spikol which combines biography, commentary and humour to demystify both mental health and the vagaries of modern life.

Liz recently began the anarchic blog of the same name to continue her quest to educate and entertain. She’s also been kind enough to talk to Mind Hacks about her life and work.

Continue reading “Five minutes with Liz Spikol”

New Research Digest, Synapse #4

neon_speaker.jpgDuring the last few days a new edition of the BPS Research Digest has hit the net and neuroscience writing carnival Synapse #4 has been released.

The Research Digest is a particularly good one with a piece about hyperlexia (early development of reading) in a 4 year-old autistic boy, a post on how psychopaths understand the meaning of emotions, and a short piece on how sound can aid visual learning.

There’s plenty more illuminating articles in both the Digest and Synapse, the latter of which is guested-hosted by Neurotopia.

Link to BPS Research Digest.
Link to Synapse #4.