Red pill or the blue pill?


“The colour of a placebo can influence its effects. When administered without information about whether they are stimulants or depressives, blue placebo pills produce depressant effects, whereas red placebos induce stimulant effects (Blackwell et al., 1972). Patients report falling asleep significantly more quickly and sleeping longer after taking a blue capsule than after taking an orange capsule (Luchelli et al., 1978). Red placebos are more effective pain relievers than white, blue or green placebos (Huskisson, 1974; Nagao et al., 1968).”

From Prof Irving Kirch’s chapter on placebo in The Power of Belief: Psychosocial Influences on Illness, Disability and Medicine (ISBN 0198530110).

Happy World Mental Health Day, well, sort of happy

on_the_beach.jpgToday is World Mental Health Day, and what could be a better way to celebrate a day of mental calm and tranquility than to ignite a blazing row at the core of psychiatry?

A group of mental health activists are pushing for the diagnosis of schizophrenia to be abolished.

Actually, the idea that schizophrenia is a single separate disorder is in a pretty shoddy state, but the argument is a textbook example of mixed agendas as the people who want to reject the label also reject the use of biological explanations in theories of mental illness, and those who argue most forcefully for the diagnosis of schizophrenia are usually heavily committed to biological psychiatry.

What gets lost, is that the validity of schizophrenia as a concept, and whether biological theories are useful, are separate issues.

This is probably because both sides seem to spend so much time trying to make us think that they’re not.

To get a good idea of what the diagnosis of schizophrenia describes in terms of our scientific understanding, the entry for schizophrenia on the OMIM database of medical conditions with genetic influences really says it all:

Schizophrenia is a psychosis, a disorder of thought and sense of self. Although it affects emotions, it is distinguished from mood disorders in which such disturbances are primary. Similarly, there may be mild impairment of cognitive function, and it is distinguished from the dementias in which disturbed cognitive function is considered primary. There is no characteristic pathology, such as neurofibrillary tangles in Alzheimer disease. Schizophrenia is a common disorder with a lifetime prevalence of approximately 1%. It is highly heritable but the genetics are complex. This may not be a single entity.

In other words, very little can be said with certainty. Any definition that finishes with the ominous “This may not be a single entity” suggests we really don’t understand much about the associated experiences.

So why does the argument over schizophrenia persist?

Mainly because the medical and legal systems are far more comfortable with cut-and-dry “you have it or you don’t” conditions than ones in which you might have a bit of this and a bit of that.

This is often due to the fact that the medical and legal systems have to make cut and dry decisions. To treat or not to treat, to detain or not to detain, and so on. These decisions become a lot easier when the supporting information is as simple as possible.

It also becomes a lot easier to market treatments for specific disorders. In fact, in many countries, drugs can only be licensed for specific disorders.

So, no diagnosis means that there’s no way of getting drugs licensed. This is why pharmaceutical companies have a vested interest in supporting the concept of schizophrenia.

In other words, the usefulness of the diagnosis of schizophrenia rests not only upon the supporting medical research, but also on its social function.

In fact, one of the ironies of the debate, is that the most recent research in molecular genetics (exactly the sort of biological approach that those against the diagnosis of schizophrenia are also opposed to) shows some of the best evidence that schizophrenia is not a discrete condition.

You can imagine that neither the drug companies nor the anti-schizophrenia-diagnosis mental health activists plaster these findings across their leaflets.

Link to article on molecular genetics of mental illness.
Link to Asylum Online on ‘Abolition of the Schizophrenia Label’.
Link to BBC News article on the debate.

Encephalon University hits the net

A wonderfully crafted new edition of psychology and neuroscience writing carnival Encephalon has just arrived online courtesy of Cognitive Daily.

I’m currently enjoying an exploration of the representation of psychology in the novels of J.G. Ballard from PsyBlog and an analysis of the cognitive neuroscience of attention and memory in the Stroop Task from The Mouse Trap, and there are several more engaging articles to enjoy from the same edition.

‘Switching off’ economic judgement with magnets

us_quarters.jpgThe Times has a concise piece on a recent study published in Science magazine suggesting that performance on an economic bargaining task could be changed by altering the function of the brain with magnets.

Neuroscientist Dr Daria Knoch and her colleagues asked participants to pay the ultimatum game while, at certain points, the function of their right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) was disrupted by magnetic pulses.

The team found that when this brain area was disrupted, participants were more likely to accept lower offers of money in the game.

The Times article is a good description of both the game (which is now a widely-used research task) and the results of the study, as well as some commentary on the growing recognition of neuroeconomics as a research field.

George Loewenstein, Professor of Economics and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, and one of the pioneers of neuro-economics, said: “The new science of neuro-economics is lending support to a very ancient view of human behaviour. That is the idea that there is a conflict and interaction between passion, and reason and self-interest.

“The now standard view of people as rational maximisers of self-interest is a very recent view. Neuroscience is telling us that that was a bit of a diversion. The rational side is a process that sometimes overrides the dominant interest on human behaviour, which is the passionate side.”

Link to Times story ‘Why say no to free money? It’s neuro-economics, stupid’.
Link to abstract of original research study in Science.

Rorschach inkblot t-shirt

rorschach_t-shirt.jpgThe Imaginary Foundation has just produced a new series of t-shirts including one that involves a psychedelic riff on the Rorschach inkblot test.

The Rorschach inkblot test is a now almost obselete test in psychology where interviewees are asked to give their impressions of a series of ambiguously shaped inkblots.

As there are few reliably ways of interpreting answers to each inkblot, it has been argued that the test is nothing more than the assessor’s subjective impression masquerading as an objective psychometric test.

Hence it has been virtually discarded in modern psychology, although remains strongly associated with the discipline in everyday stereotypes.

It does, however, make for a beautiful garment when interpreted by the Imaginary Foundation’s wonderfully askew artists.

Link to Imaginary Foundation ‘Rorschach Girl’ t-shirt.

Science and Consciousness Review lives!

scr_logo.jpgQuality online cognitive science site Science and Consciousness Review has arisen phoenix-like from the ashes after a nasty database crash.

The outage removed it from the internet for several months, but it is now back in action, serving up the latest in news and views in consciousness and cognitive science research.

In fact, it’s just alerted me to the announcement of the 2007 visual illusion contest which also includes last year’s winners on their website.

Link to Science and Consciousness Review.

Does breastfeeding cause or correlate with benefits?

adult_baby_hand.jpgThere’s an interesting piece on BBC News that has a different take on the two breastfeeding stories we ran recently that suggested that breastfeeding during the early years might aid brain development and reduce risk for mental illness.

A study published this week in the British Medical Journal suggests that the advantage of breastfeeding on baby’s intelligence could be explained not by the effect of breastmilk on the infant’s developing brain, but by the fact that women who breastfeed are more likely to have higher IQs.

This is perhaps because IQ is correlated with social and economic class, and people in these classes are generally more likely to follow health advice promoted in education campaigns.

Hence, these babies might just be more likely to inherit neurodevelopmental advantages from their mothers (IQ is known to be partially heritable), and are probably more likely to benefit from a range of other factors which better socioeconomic conditions bring.

I suspect that advantage seen in breastfed babies might be a combination of social and genetic factors, as well as the effects of breastmilk.

We know that good nutrition in the early years is crucial to good brain development and breastmilk is a tailor-made for the purpose.

However, the brain also develops through interaction with the environment, so this nutritional advantage has to be balanced against social and educational experience.

Link to BBC News story “Breast milk ‘does not boost IQ'”.
Link to abstract of original study from BMJ.

The genetics of hair pulling and vagaries of reporting

light_hair.jpgThe BBC has a news story on the genetics of a disorder called trichotillomania (compulsive hair-pulling) that typifies the way genetics discoveries are reported in the media.

First sentence:

Scientists have identified gene mutations responsible for a psychiatric disorder that causes people to compulsively pull their own hair.

Way down the article:

Dr Allison Ashley-Koch, who also worked on the study, said numerous other genes were likely to contribute to the condition. She said: “The SLITRK1 gene could be among many other genes that are likely interact with each other and environmental factors to trigger trichotillomania and other psychiatric conditions.

No prizes for guessing which is the most accurate and which makes the best headline copy.

In almost any news story you read that says ‘gene found for psychiatric disorder X’ read ‘a gene has been identified which seems to explain some of the risk for developing X’ – unless it specifically says otherwise.

Link to BBC News article ‘Hair pulling disorder gene found’.
Link to more information on trichotillomania.

2006-10-06 Spike activity

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


ABC Radio’s All in the Mind tackles the mind-body problem in an engaging debate.

Wired Magazine with an appallingly-titled article on the neuropsychology of pathopaths: ‘Psychos Need a Little Sympathy’.

On the irony! US Government funded study concludes that conservatism can be explained psychologically as a set of neuroses rooted in “fear and aggression, dogmatism and the intolerance of ambiguity”.

The ‘BBC Prison study’, a re-run of Milgram’s Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison experiment (doh! thanks Pedro), is written up in The Psychologist: Tyranny revisited.

Developing Intelligence looks at the nature / nurture interaction in language learning theories.

The New York Times has an article on ‘compulsive shopping disorder’.

There is a God: curry may be neuroprotective – reports The Neurophilosopher.

Amazing brain writing prize

Do you fancy winning ¬£250 for writing a short article about brain science? If so, this could be for you – the website ‘Your Amazing Brain’, hosted by the science exhibition centre @Bristol, together with the European Dana Alliance for the Brain, and The British Neuroscience Association, are looking for a newspaper style science article of around 650 words on the subject of brain science. There are two categories – the first anyone can enter (except professional writers), whereas the second is for researchers writing about their own area of research. Both have a winning prize of ¬£250 and your article will be published all over the place. But get cracking, the deadline is the end of this month.

Link to full details.

Gallery Space Recall

half_what_logo.jpgI’ve been collaborating with artist Simon Pope over the last few months and have been working on a project that aims to investigate the interaction between memory and location, and how this relationship can become fractured and renewed in psychosis.

The first event, called Gallery Space Recall, happens tomorrow in Chapter Art Gallery in Cardiff and everyone is invited.

Simon is particularly well-known for his use of walking as a visual art practice (and wrote the wonderful guide to exploring London’s psyche London Walking).

One particular form of delusion that occurs after brain injury seems to cause a rift in the normal pattern of understanding location, most likely owing to a disturbance in the brain’s memory structures.

Reduplicative paramnesia is the delusional belief that a place exists in two or more locations simultaneously and has been the inspiration for the project where we will try and get participants to hold contrasting and contradictory memories of a past location in mind, while experiencing movement through a current space.

The project also asks questions about the difference between delusion, psychosis and supposedly ‘normal’ mental states, and how they relate to our own memories of location and place.

By highlighting the universal influence of memory on our experience of the world, the project hopes to better understand the normal function of memory, and emphasises the common experience of the ‘mad’ and the ‘sane’.

Where is the line between delusion and reality when we only have our memories to rely on?

There are more stages of the project planned (and more events), some of which you can read about here, so we’ll keep you updated as the project moves on.

Link to details of ‘Gallery Space Recall’ event.
Link to Walking Here and There.

NewSci on confabulation and memory distortion

newsci_20061007.jpgThere’s an interesting cover story in today’s New Scientist about the neuropsychology of confabulation – the curious condition where patients give completely false narratives of situations that they think they remember.

The condition is usually associated with brain injury, often to the frontal lobes. In contrast to delusions, these false narratives are not usually fixed, so you might get different false memories given in answer to the same question asked several times.

Sadly, the NewSci article is not freely available online, so you’ll need to pick up a copy at your local library or newsagent if you want to read it.

However, the article is largely a summary of William Hirstein’s recent book Brain Fiction that tackles the subject in some depth (although a little haphazardly in places it has to be said – I’m still baffled as to why he specifically singles-out Capgras delusion as a form of confabulation).

There is much excellent reading inside though, and the first chapter of the book (entitled ‘What is confabulation?’) is freely available online if you want to get a better idea about this condition.

Link to details of Brain Fiction with sample chapter.
Link to intro to the NewSci article.

From sci-fi footnote to cutting-edge vision science

hoyle_black_cloud.jpgThere’s a fascinating letter in today’s Nature about how a footnote in one of Fred Hoyle’s science fiction novels inspired a branch of research in vision science on how the brain estimates when moving objects will arrive at a certain point.

The characters in the book discover an ominous black cloud that appears to be heading towards Earth. Will the cloud hit Earth and, if so, when? The first question is solved when the characters examine the relative speed at which the cloud is translating across the night sky to the rate at which it is looming, or seeming to get larger. The second question is tackled with a bit of impromptu algebra in which the time until impact is calculated from the ratio of the current size of the cloud to its rate of change…

David Lee realized in the 1970s that the brain can use the ratio of size to its rate of change, previously identified by Hoyle, to estimate the imminence of arrival. David Regan realized soon afterwards that the brain can use the ratio of lateral speed to looming rate to calculate where an object is travelling….

Since the early work of Lee and Regan, a considerable amount of research in areas including psychophysics, motor action, neurophysiology and computational modelling has followed (see D. Regan and R. Gray Trends in Cognitive Sciences 4, 99–107; 2000). The whole body of work that exists today can be traced back to a casual footnote and a couple of sketches in a science-fiction novel.

Fred Hoyle was a professional astronomer working at Cambridge University so knew plenty about mathematics, but wrote a number of notable science fiction novels during his lifetime.

The full letter is freely available at the following link.

Link to Nature letter ‘Hoyle’s observations were right on the ball’

Stephen Fry’s ‘Secret Life’ bittorrent available

It seems Stephen Fry’s two-part BBC documentary ‘The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive’ on the science, treatment and experience of bipolar disorder is available online as bittorrents (part 1 and part 2).

We reported on the documentary previously on Mind Hacks, and there’s more about bittorrent here if you’ve not heard of it before.

The programme does a fantastic job of breaking down some of the myths and tackling stigma, and contains a remarkable breadth of opinion on all aspects of the condition. Well worth watching.

2006 – Essential sites for students

spiral_bound_notebooks.jpgFollowing on from last year’s successful ‘essential sites’ round up, Mind Hacks presents our 2006 list of essential websites for mind and brain students, just in time for the new academic year.

Whether you’re a future graduate psychologist, a hardened lab-based neuroscientist or are in the midst of studying any of the cognitive sciences, we should have something to help you on your way.

Continue reading “2006 – Essential sites for students”