Atomic force

chrom.pngI like experiments that use lasers, radiation or magnets, because, goddamit, they feel like proper science. And if the study produces a 3D fly-through animation afterwards, so much the better.

The Neurophilosopher’s blog has just published a great article discussing a study that ticks several of these boxes.

Professors Vladimir Parpura and Umar Mohideen of the University of California, Riverside have used atomic force microscopy [Roaarrrr!] to investigate the mechanisms by which neurons release neurotransmitters.

Check out the bottom of the article for the fly-through animation.

Link to Neurophilospher’s article ‘Neurotransmitter release examined using atomic force microscopy’.

APA endorses participation in military interrogations

guantanamo_detainee.jpgWhen the American Medical Association directed its members to have no part in controversial US military interrogations, the military said they’d just use psychologists instead.

Subsequently, the American Psychological Society Association has endorsed a report [pdf] that sets out how psychologists can participate in the same interrogations that their medical colleagues have declared unacceptable.

Salon wrote an article about this decision, and the fact that the endorsement did not follow the standard route of approval and contained a majority of members with ties to the military.

The APA sent off an angry reply to Salon but has subsequently had to admit that some of the information in their reply was incorrect, as detailed in a further article.

The debate is likely to get heated during the APA’s summer conference where the controversy is due to be debated.

There is already an online petition of psychologists who are lobbying the APA to adopt a stricter policy which has gained 1,500 signature so far.

In response, the APA has posted their own analysis of the key similarities and differences between the medical position and their own on their website [pdf].

Link to Salon article ‘Psychological warfare’.
Link to Salon ‘Psychologists group still rocked by torture debate’.
pdf of APA ethics comparison.
pdf of Report of the APA Presidential Task Force on psychological ethics and national security.

Stopping crows

notes_on_wood.jpgStop That Crow! is a curiously named website that looks at some of the hottest topics in contemporary philosophy of mind.

The site’s writer, Jeff, posts his thoughts and educated analyses on everything from thinking machines to consciousness and metaphor, meaning regular readers are given a thorough grounding in mind and brain philosophy.

This is exactly the sort of philosophy which can have practical day-to-day implications for the working cognitive scientist and dispells the common myths about philosophy as a subject.

Link to Stop That Crow!

Becoming human

neanderthal_skull.jpgScientific American has released another one if its special editions, the most recent is on the science of evolution and the rise of intelligence.

From what I can make out, all the articles have been published before in the regular Scientific American, but are collected together in place to make a special theme issue.

The ‘Becoming Human’ issue looks at the cognitive and social skills of apes, the migration patterns of early humans, the curious case of the homo floresiensis (‘hobbit’) fossils and the current theories and controversites over the evolution of mind and intelligence.

I picked up a copy in the newsagent but it looks like you can also download a version from their website for $5.

Link to SciAm special edition ‘Becoming Human’.

2006-08-04 Spike activity

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


Developing Intelligence challenges the accepted wisdom that working memory holds ‘7 plus or minus 2 items’.

Douglas Hofstadter discusses the philosophy of self on The Philosophy Zone.

Psyche pdf reviews new book ‘Mind-Altering Drugs: The Science of Subjective Experience’.

A Brood Comb collects links to online videos of philosophy talks.

Breast-fed babies handle stress better, reports BBC News.

AADT Blog discusses the trial of Andrea Yates who killed her children while suffering from psychotic depression.

Are teens miserable because they are being pushed to compete rather then connect with their peers, asks the Washington Post.

Anxious people are quicker at reading faces that others, but do so less accurately, reports ScienceDaily

PsyBlog discusses how we create theories in psychology.

Is homophobia associated with homosexual arousal?

The classic 1996 paper by psychologist Henry Adams and colleagues that reported that homophobic males were more likely to be turned on by gay pornography that non-homophobic males is available online as a pdf file.

This study has been cited (not without controversy) as evidence for Freud’s concept of latent homosexuality.

It is no less controversial now and there have been many criticisms and commentaries since it was first published.

pdf of full-text paper.
Link to summary on PubMed.

Neuropsychology of combat and chemical warfare

machine_gunner.jpgAmerican medical journal JAMA has just published two fascinating articles on the impact of war: one on the neuropsychological effects of combat duty on US soldiers, and the other on the impact of chemical weapons on the mental health of Iranian chemical warfare survivors.

The study on US soldiers has been covered by the New York Times and the original research paper is freely available online.

It found that compared to non-deployed soldiers, previously deployed soldiers in Iraq scored worse on measures of sustained attention, verbal learning, and visual-spatial memory and had higher scores on measures of tension and confusion. In contrast, their general reaction time had improved.

The authors of the study suggest that these differences may result from the effects of persistent arousal on the brain which heighten the ability to react quickly at the expense of dampening attention, learning, and memory for things that are not threat-relevant.

The research on the impact of chemical weapons focused on three towns in northern Iran (Oshnaviyeh, Rabat and Sardasht) that had suffered either ‘low-intensity’ conventional warfare, ‘high-intensity’ conventional warfare or a mixture of conventional and chemical warfare in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.

Researchers interviewed civilian residents of the towns and found frightening levels of lasting PTSD, anxiety symptoms and severe depressive symptoms, particularly in those who had experienced the additional horror of chemical weapon attack.

The chances of mental disorder were 7.2 to 14.6 times higher for chemical weapons survivors than for individuals who had experienced ‘low-intensity’ warfare.

Link to New York Times article (via Frontal Cortex).
Link to full-text JAMA paper on US soldiers.
Link to abstract of paper on chemical warfare.

Schizophrenia between ourselves

blue_sky_white_clouds.jpgThe BBC Radio 4 discussion programme Between Ourselves had a frank and insightful discussion with two people who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia about the experience of voices, delusions, mental health care and the reaction of others.

One of the people interviewed is Dolly Sen, London-based artist, writer, and film-maker who has been heavily involved in Creative Routes, the respected arts organisation run by mental health service users.

One thing that many people might find surprising is that both the guests note that their voices are often unpleasant, but they feel that there would be ‘something missing’ from their lives if they suddenly disappeared.

Both of the guests also talk about the low points and fears caused by the overwhealming delusions they have experienced, and the distress caused by some bad experiences of hospitalisation.

As well as the negative experiences, Sen also describes some of the positive experiences of psychosis, saying “The best part of my voices is that I feel sometimes that the stars are talking to me and their giving me their song and their poetry and their magic”.

All in all, the programme is a fantastic account of the kaleidoscopic experience of psychosis that can be both troubling and profound.

Link to webpage with realaudio archive of Between Ourselves.

Applied sleep science

nuria_sleep.jpgScience has an engaging article on how to apply the science of sleep in the service of improving your own night’s sleep, with plenty of clear advice and links to the research.

A bit bizarrely, it’s in their ‘Career Development’ section, presumably based on the idea that getting a good night’s sleep is good for your career.

Despite the slightly awkward spin, it’s useful look at how sleep research can be directly applied to optimising your downtime.

Link to ‘Forty Winks: Science and Sleep’.

Parasite culture

Toxoplasma_gondii_from_wp.jpgCould a wide-spread brain infection account for differences in cultures across the world? Possibly, is the surprising answer from a new research paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.

If cognitive parasitology isn’t your thing (and it may not be, as I just made that up) the research is expertly discussed by Carl Zimmer.

The disease caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii is called toxoplasmosis and has been linked to ‘personality’ changes in rats and mice.

Although controversial, some suggest that this infection may also be linked to personality changes in humans, suggesting that different rates of infections in different countries may lead to differences in ‘national character’.

You’re best going to Zimmer’s write-up for a concise take on the major implications, but I’ll leave you with an intriguing point he finishes on:

“[This] raises another interesting question: what about other parasites? Do viruses, intestinal worms, and other pathogens that can linger in the body for decades have their own influence on human personality?”

Link to Zimmer’s article ‘A Nation of Neurotics? Blame the Puppet Masters?’.

Mark Steel lectures on Freud, Aristotle, Descartes

aristotle_mark_steel.jpgSomeone has put a series of the brilliant Mark Steel Lectures online which are an informative and hilarious romp through some of the most important historical figures in history.

They were created by the BBC for the Open University to both educate and enthuse people about history and contain wry insights into both the work and lives of the people featured.

The programmes on Freud, Aristotle and Descartes are likely to be of most interest to Mind Hacks readers, although the whole of this series has some fantastic gems.

Link to YouTube archive of the Mark Steel Lectures.

Drug dangerousness ranked by UK advisors

The UK goverment commissioned psychopharmacologist Professor David Nutt and neuroscientist Professor Colin Blakemore to rank recreational drugs by their dangerousness.

The list has just been published in today’s The Independent and gives some surprising results. Unusually, the list contains both legal and illegal drugs.

The drugs were ranked by ratings which took into account a combination of their physical damage, social harm and addictive properties.

In rank order of harmfulness:

1. Heroin
2. Cocaine
3. Barbituates
4. Street methadone
5. Alcohol
6. Ketamine
7. Benzodiazepines (e.g. Vallium)
8. Amphetamines
9. Tobacco
10. Buprenorphine
11. Cannabis
12. Solvents
13. 4-MTA
14. LSD
15. Methylphenidate (Ritalin)
16. Anabolic steroids
17. GHB
18. Ecstasy
19. Alkyl Nitrites (poppers)
20. Khat

I would like to point out to my ex-girlfriend that Red Bull is not listed among them.

There’s more information on each drug here and an article about the consultation here.

Apparently, the government were a little reticient to publish the report, considering the legal clasification is completely out of whack with this analysis.

SciAm on the expert mind

chess_at_the_park.jpgThis month’s Scientific American has a fantastic article on the psychology of expert skills which they’ve made freely available online.

It discusses how research into the cognitive processes and neuropsychology of chess masters is informing wider questions of how experts differ from novices and what mental skills underlie the mastering of a subject.

…much of the chess master’s advantage over the novice derives from the first few seconds of thought. This rapid, knowledge-guided perception, sometimes called apperception, can be seen in experts in other fields as well. Just as a master can recall all the moves in a game he has played, so can an accomplished musician often reconstruct the score to a sonata heard just once. And just as the chess master often finds the best move in a flash, an expert physician can sometimes make an accurate diagnosis within moments of laying eyes on a patient.

But how do the experts in these various subjects acquire their extraordinary skills? How much can be credited to innate talent and how much to intensive training? Psychologists have sought answers in studies of chess masters. The collected results of a century of such research have led to new theories explaining how the mind organizes and retrieves information.

Link to SciAm article ‘The Expert Mind’.

Neurosurgery: Live!

or-live_lobectomoy.jpgOR-Live is a website that carries videos of surgical procedures, including a section where you can watch neurosurgery in action.

A brain clipping and coiling procedure to repair an aneurysm will be broadcast live today, and if that doesn’t take your fancy, there’s plenty more in the archive.

One of my favorites is a temporal lobectomy (removal of part of the temporal lobe) that was completed to remove the source of untreatable epileptic seizures.

It has a winning combination of a fascinating surgical procedure and a slightly uncomfortable professor of neurosurgery looking a bit awkward in front of the camera.

The site is a little confusing in that you need to use the ‘Watch Live Webcast’ link to launch an archive recording as well as see a live broadcast.

Link to neurosurgery at OR-Live (via Neurocontrarian).