Brain scan finds vegetative state patient conscious

A team led by neuropsychologist Dr Adrian Owen has reported on a patient who supposedly fulfilled all the criteria for a diagnosis of persistent vegetative state (PVS) but was found to have conscious awareness.

This seems a little confusing to me, as PVS is usually defined as where ‘higher’ cognitive abilities, such as awareness, are not present.

Unfortunately, I can’t read the article in full as I’m still away from home, but I suspect the diagnosis is usually based on observations of external signs of awareness, whereas Owen’s group used fMRI (a type of ‘brain scanning’) to look for changes in brain activation that would not necessarilly result in observable behaviour.

There’s a good write-up over at the BBC site with accompanying video, and for those with access to the full-text of the journal Science the original paper is available online.

This is similar to a recent study (covered previously on Mind Hacks) where researchers found evidence for similar sorts of ‘higher’ cognitive function in two patients in a ‘minimally conscious state‘.

It is likely, however, that all of these patients have suffered some problems with mental function, owing to extensive brain injury.

As psychology and neuroscience are able to measure brain function in more direct ways, rather than solely through observable behaviour, these sorts of coma-like states are likely to be found to be much more complex than previously thought.

However, neither of these conditions should be confused with ‘locked-in syndrome‘, where the cortex of the brain is largely undamaged, but selective damage to the brain stem means that the person cannot move his or her body and is often totally paralysed, despite being mentally intact.

One of the most powerful books I have ever read is the The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, written by the ex-editor of Elle magazine, who suffered a stroke and became ‘locked in’.

He wrote the book by indicating single letters with his only form of movement – an eye blink. The book is a transcendent description of his experience both before and after the onset of his condition.

Bauby died two days after the book was published but left the world with one of its most beautiful and unique literary works.

Link to BBC News story.
Link to abstract from Science.

More Coldplay than Radiohead

The runaway success of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the book written from the perspective of a young autistic boy, has not entirely pleased its author Mark Haddon:

“I’m just suspicious that too many people liked it. All the books I really like are loathed by some people…It’s like you want to be Radiohead and then you think, shit, I’ve accidentally turned into Coldplay”.

Source: The Week.

defining the field of psychology

Several decades ago, an eminent psychologist defined the field of psychology as ‘a bunch of men standing on piles of their own crap, waving their hands and yelling “Look at me, look at me!”’ Fortunately, things have changed quite a bit over the years, and the field is no longer composed entirely of men.

Daniel Gilbert, Are psychology’s tribes ready to form a nation?, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Vol.6 No.1 January 2002.

Eye gaze and cognition in children

Thanks very much to Robbie Ben for alerting us to the fact that there´s a full article on eye gaze and cognition by Dr Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon freely available online as a pdf file.

The article was published in The Psychologist in 2004 and discusses much of the background behind Doherty-Sneddon´s work which has led to the research mentioned in the previous post.

pdf of article ‘Don’t look now, I’m trying to think’.

Glazed looks sharpen the mind

There’s an interesting news report on the Nature website suggesting that gazing into the middle distance improves concentration.

Researchers at the University of Stirling in Scotland took a group of 25 five-year-olds and trained them to look away when they were being asked a question. The effect was a significant increase in correct answers to mental arithmetic questions, says Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, who led the research. She declined to give details as the work is in press with the British Journal of Developmental Psychology.

It strikes me as a bit strange that someone would decline to give details because the paper is ‘in press’.

When a paper is ‘in press’ it means that it has been reviewed by independent scientists and declared to be worthy of publication.

It is standard practice for researchers give out ‘pre-prints’ of the research papers to anyone who asks at this stage and it is considered a little obstructive to refuse.

Despite this strangeness, it seems like an interesting study and I’ll look forward to reading it when it is finally published.

Link to news report from Nature.

Keeping it in the family

[Paramutation] describes an interaction between different alleles or even different loci [areas on a chromosome], which results in a stable alteration in their functional state… Consequently, the properties of an inherited gene may in part be dependent on a gene sequence that is not actually co-inherited. Clearly, this flouts what we generally think of as genetic inheritance. Furthermore, if parental experiences affect the expression of RNA molecules involved in RNA induced DNA silencing, it is conceivable that heritable changes in gene activity might result from environmental stimuli.

An excerpt from p21 of Psychiatric Genetics and Genomics (ISBN 0198564864) that describes a potential way that experience could affect the genetic information that gets inherited by the next generation.

This is part of a largely unexplored area known as epigenetics which examines the biochemistry of gene expression.

It is thought that understanding epigenetics will be crucial for working out the genetic influences on mind and brain function.