Fading faces

face_blur.jpgWired Magazine has an article on a curious condition known as prosopagnosia where affected individuals cannot recognise people by their faces, despite being able to recognise and distinguish everyday objects with little trouble.

Until recently, it was thought that the condition only arose after brain injury – usually because of damage to an area of the brain known as the fusiform gyrus. This area is known to be heavily involved in face recognition.

It has more recently been reported as an inherited form, suggesting that some people are simply born with particularly bad face recognition skills.

The article looks at the work of neuropsychologist Dr Bradley Duchaine who is investigating the psychology and neuroscience of face recognition impairment, and discusses the experience of several people who have the condition.

One of the people is Bill Choisser, who created ‘Face Blind!‘, one of the first and longest-running prosopagnosia websites on the net.

A particularly striking feature of his site is a self-published book which is an in-depth discussion of the condition and its effects.

Link to Wired article ‘Face Blind’.
Link to Bradley Duchaine’s page with copies of his scientific papers.
Link to Bill Choisser’s website on prosopagnosia.

How to be funny

laugh_smile.jpgThere’s an interesting (and actually quite funny) article from The Telegraph on the psychology of humour, written by the comedians Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves.

Rather than examining the research on the psychology of humour, it looks at how comedians view jokes and joke telling, relating it both to professional comedy and informal social jokes among friends.

For those wanting a view from the science of humour, however, there’s more on the humour research page.

Link to ‘How to be Funny’ from The Telegraph (via 3Quarks).
Link to Humour Research Page.

Synapse 10 arrives

brain mould_image.jpgIssue 10 of psychology and neuroscience writing carnival The Synapse has just arrived on Neurocritic.

This edition has a distinct Halloween theme with an article on the neuroscience of fear and disgust, and instructions on how to make a realistic edible brain (pictured on the right).

Apart from the spookier articles, there’s also a collection of recent writing on everything from obsessive-compulsive disorder in Macbeth, to the role of peptides in neural transport.

Link to Issue 10 of The Synapse.

Why so many US psychiatric casualties in Iraq?

HM3_2545_iraq_war_001.jpgTwo studies published this year have highlighted a stark difference in the level of psychiatric casualties between British and American troops involved in the Iraq war.

A study in the Lancet reported that only four percent of British troops in Iraq reach criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – a trauma related mental illness.

In contrast, approximately ten to twenty percent of US troops are diagnosable with the condition, according to studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In an editorial for JAMA, psychiatrists Matthew Hotopf and Simon Wessely suggest a number of reasons for why this might be the case.

The first is that US troops may be involved in more dangerous combat duty and are therefore more likely to be traumatised.

However, they suggest other factors are also likely to be important.

US tours of duty are typically for 1 year, whereas UK tours are for 6 months. This means any combat-duty-related psychological stresses are likely to be extended in US personnel.

Further factors relate to the differences in the populations of the US and UK forces:

…the groups described in the US studies were demographically different from those described here. The US forces deployed to Iraq in both studies were younger, of lower rank, and contained more reservists than our UK sample. While less than 10% of the US sample had previous experience of deployment, more than two-thirds of the UK service personnel from both cohorts had been on previous deployments in a range of settings, including both war-fighting and peacekeeping duties. They therefore had much more experience of the stresses of military deployments, and might have been more resilient to these stresses.

In other words, US forces in Iraq are more likely to be made up of younger, non-professional soldiers, on longer tours of duty, with less combat experience, in more dangerous areas, when compared to their their UK counterparts – potentially making them more vulnerable to mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Link to abstract of Lancet study on mental health of UK troops in Iraq.
Link to JAMA study on mental health of US troops in Iraq.
Link to NEJM study on mental health of US troops in Iraq.
Link to US National Center for PTSD Iraq War information page.

‘Dying to be thin’ special report on eating disorders

Independent_Cover_2006-10-29.jpgThe cover story on yesterday’s The Independent on Sunday had a special report on eating disorders. The report is in several sections and covers the rising prevalence of eating disorders and the experience of people who have anorexia or bulimia.

Two main reports describe the characteristics of common eating disorders and discuss the possible contributory factors, including the growing concern over online ‘pro-ana‘ or pro-anorexia communities.

It also includes two articles on ‘Living with Anorexia‘ and ‘Living with Bulimia‘ where people who have experienced eating disorders for themselves recount the effect on their lives.

This issue has been in the media recently after Madrid fashion week banned unhealthily thin models from their catwalks and Prof Janet Treasure, head of the eating disorders service at the Institute of Psychiatry, and 40 health professional colleagues, wrote to the British Fashion Council asking them to do the same.

Link to ‘Dying to be thin: a special IoS investigation’.
Link to ‘Why one in 100 young women suffer from eating disorders’.
Link to ‘Living with Anorexia’.
Link to ‘Living with Bulimia’.

Mechanical brain sculptures

Introspection2001_lewis_tardy.jpgNeurofuture is back with a bang after a late-summer sabbatical and has alerted me to some wonderful mechanical brain sculptures by artist Lewis Tardy.

Tardy has created a range of mechanical people and beasts all rendered as if they were powered by complex clockwork and hydraulics.

Some of these include cut-away heads, such as the one featured, with the thinking mechanisms exposed for the world to inspect.

Link to ‘Mechanical brains’ on Neurofuture.
Link to Lewis Tardy’s website.

Military applications of neuroscience

cammo_brain.jpgThis week’s Nature has a fascinating and freely-accessible review (pdf) of Jonathan Moreno’s new book Mind Wars (ISBN 1932594167) that tackles both the deployment of military neuroscience research on the battlefield and the ethical issues raised by these new technologies.

Welcome to the world of Mind Wars and the military application of neuroscience, which is the subject of this fascinating and sometimes unsettling book. As the author Jonathan Moreno reveals, the US military has a longstanding interest in brain research and, as scientific understanding continues to advance, so does its appeal to the national security establishment.

The Department of Defense conducts much of its research in secret, and some of it would probably fare poorly in open peer review – for example, the military continued to fund psychic research until 1995 – but with an annual research and development budget of at least $68 billion, it can presumably afford to leave no stone unturned.

Partly because its activities are more visible, Moreno focuses especially on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which supports unclassified academic research with potential military applications. DARPA has a distinguished record of supporting innovation, including the Internet, so its involvement in brain research must be taken seriously.

Nature has put some relevant links online from the review, so you can follow up the topic if you’re interested.

There’s also more about the book, including some (very) brief excerpts and a Q&A with the author on the Dana website.

It’s also worth noting that Moreno will be discussing the topic and his new book on November 28th in New York, at an event hosted by The New York Academy of Sciences.

pdf of review of Mind Wars (thanks Tom!).
Link to info on book from Dana Press.
Link to details of Moreno ‘Mind Wars’ talk in New York.

The madness of King Eadbald


“A Saxon king of the early seventh century, Eadbald, was described in the language of the early eighth century as troubled by frequent fits of insanity and ‘by the attack of a foul spirit’ after marrying his late father’s second wife.

But he had also rejected Christianity which his father Ethelbert had taken up, and the missionaries in Kent were going through a difficult period; so, apart from the meaninglessness of the description, some character assassination may be involved in the record.”

From p48 of Mental Disorder in Earlier Britain (ISBN 0708305628) by Basil Clarke.

Nature Neuroscience launches monthly podcast

NatureNeuroscienceOct2006.jpgI just discovered from The Neurophilosopher’s blog that Nature Neuroscience have launched a (presumably monthly) podcast where the latest in neuroscience research is discussed.

It seems that it will only discuss research published in Nature journals, however.

This may seem surprising to those unaware how science and scientific publishing works, but it makes good business sense for Nature.

Scientific journals make money on the basis of advertising (a large part) and readership (through charging for subscriptions, online access and single article reprints).

They vie to be the most prestigious journals by having the widest readership and attracting the best research for publication.

In turn, scientists’ careers are often based on getting their research published in the most prestigious journals because this should guaruntee it is widely read and has the greatest impact.

Having a journal-sponsored podcast that might discuss and, therefore, promote, any of the articles in the publication gives scientists an extra reason to submit their work to the journal.

Whereas discussing research from competitors’ journals would just be giving free advertising to commercial rivals.

That said, the Nature journals are among the most prestigious science publications, and a monthly discussion even of their articles alone is likely to keep you informed of some of the most important developments in neuroscience.

Link to Nature Neuroscience podcast.

2006-10-27 Spike activity

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


New Scientist reports that a new surveillance system can distinguish between violent and non-violent behaviour (with video).

Cognitive Daily asks ‘do deadlines help procrastinators?’

Review of ’23 Problems in Systems Neuroscience’ from American Scientist. What is systems neuroscience?

Damage to the brain could unleash artistic talent, reports ABC News, covering a new paper in medical journal Neurology.

Paper in Science on ‘stereotype threat’ (see previously on Mind Hacks) affecting women’s maths performance is covered by Seed Magazine.

Forbes magazine lists some of the physical and psychological benefits of sex.

More on inheriting facial expressions: The Economist has a well-written article on the recent ingenious study.

Review of ‘For Matthew and Others: Journeys with Schizophrenia’ art exhibition from The Australian.

People who read more fiction have higher levels of empathy, reports Frontal Cortex.

Developing Intelligence has a fantastic review of neuroscience-of-self book ‘I of the Vortex’.

UK has ‘lowest ever’ suicide rate, reports BBC News.

Anti-sleep drugs for UK troops

alert_eye.jpgSurely this isn’t news? BBC News is reporting that ‘stay-up-forever’ drug modafinil has been tested on UK troops.

The drug, which prevents sleep and increases cognitive performance but does not cause the same ‘wired’ effect as amphetamines, has been used by the US military for several years.

One of the problems with amphetamines, the previous military drug of choice, is that over time it vastly increases the risk of paranoia and psychosis (obviously not good for heavily armed soldiers), whereas the risk with modafinil seems, at least at this stage, to be minimal in comparison.

It has been previously reported that the UK Ministry of Defence bought thousands of doses of modafinil prior to 2004.

It’s hardly a shock that they’ve been given to troops in an attempt to give them a cognitive edge over the opposition.

Did anyone really think that they were bought in case there was a massive influx of soldiers with narcolepsy?

One bizarre aspect, however, is the BBC News story reports that modafinil pills are called ‘zombies’ on the “drug scene”.

Modafinil is noted as having virtually no pleasurable effects, making it a poor candidate for a recreational drug. Furthermore, there seems to be few references to the nickname on the net.

Brain warehouse

brain_warehouse_image.jpgThe UK government have launched a campaign to warn 11-15 year-olds about the dangers of cannabis, using an ironic and lighthearted website and advert.

They’re both based around the concept of a high-street retailer for new brains. Teenagers who have trouble with their brains due to cannabis use can trade theirs in for new models.

These include the ‘Freakout-Free X50’ (Free yourself from paranoid freakouts once and for all with this little beauty!) and the ‘Spewstopper’ (Whether smoking a spliff or a bong, say no to embarrassing puking sessions!).

The comical tone is obviously meant to connect with teenagers who are immune, on principal, to dire warnings about partaking in illegal drugs.

Two UK mental health charities have criticised the adverts for not warning about the more extreme and unlikely outcomes of cannabis use (such as schizophrenia) and even for potentially increasing the popularity of cannabis.

Actually, it seems that the adverts are focusing much more on the short-term unpleasant effects, perhaps, as these are the least socially acceptable among teenagers.

Maybe this is in the hope that this will reduce consumption and have a knock-on benefit for mental health.

Like many drug campaigns I remember from teenage years, my concern is that this campaign is still a little unbalanced.

I suspect not describing the positive as well as the negative aspects of drugs leads people to disbelieve most things they’ve heard from a particular source if they subsequently take something and thoroughly enjoy themselves, contrary to the ‘received wisdom’.

This is purely speculation on my part, however, as I’ve had little luck tracking down relevant research, so the results of any studies on the effectiveness of different types of drug education would be particularly interesting and gratefully received.

Link to Brain Warehouse website.

Painting through Alzheimer’s

Utermohlen_Alzheimer's.jpgThere’s a short but fascinating piece in the New York Times on how the work of artist William Utermohlen was affected by the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Utermohlen produced some striking pieces during his career and continued to paint after being diagnosed with the degenerative brain disorder.

The impact of the disorder on his creativity can be seen in a web slide show created to accompany the article.

It’s particularly interesting that the impact of the paintings don’t always seem to diminish with his reduction in technical skill, with some of the later paintings (particularly the one from 1998) remaining both vivid and haunting.

Link to NYT article ‘Self-Portraits Chronicle a Descent Into Alzheimer‚Äôs’.
Link to William Utermohlen gallery.
Link to information on Alzheimer’s disease.

Travelling with…


“In the Revised Confessions de Quincey tell us how much he suffered from ‘the pressure on my heart from the incommunicable.’ This pressure, no doubt, is known to us all; but it may approach the most agonising level in patients whose sufferings are not only intense, but so strange as to seem, at first, beyond the possibilities of communication.

Such difficulties in communication, clearly, can arise from the very strangeness, the extraordinary quality, of patients’ problems, their experience; but an equal, if not greater difficulty may be created by physicians themselves who, in effect, decline to listen to their patients, to treat them as equals, and who are prone to adopt – from force of habit, or from a less excusable sense of professional apartness and superiority – an approach and language which effectively prevent any real communication between themselves and their patients.

Thus patients may be subjected to interrogation and examination which smack of the schoolroom and courtroom – questions of the form: ‘Do you have this… do you have that…? which by their categorical nature demand categorical answers (yes and no answers, answers in terms of this and that).

Such an approach forecloses the possibility of learning anything new, and prevents the possibility of forming a picture, or pictures, of what it is like to be as one is.

The fundamental questions – ‘How are you?’ and ‘What is it like? – can only be answered analogically, allusively, in terms of ‘as if’ and likeness, by images, similitudes, models, metaphors, that is, by evocations of one sort and another.

There can be no reaching out into the realm of the incommunicable (or scarcely communicable) unless the physician becomes a fellow traveller, a fellow explorer, continually moving with his patients, discovering with them a vivid, exact a figurative language which will reach out towards the incommunicable. Together they must create languages which bridge the gulf between physician and patient, the gulf which separates one man from another.

Such an approach is neither ‘subjective’ nor ‘objective’; it is (in Rosenstock-Hussey’s term) ‘trajective‘. Neither seeing the patient as an impersonal object nor subjecting him to identifications and projections of himself, the physician must proceed by sympathy or empathy, proceeding in company with the patient, sharing his experiences and feelings and thoughts, the inner conceptions which shape his behaviour.

He must feel (or imagine) how his patient is feeling, without ever losing the sense of himself; he must inhabit, simultaneously, two frames of reference and make it possible for the patient to do likewise.”

Oliver Sacks discusses the psychology of communicating with distressed or impaired people, in footnote 104 of Awakenings.