Doctor, I’m hearing voices (discussing psychiatry)

Both the British and American Journals of Psychiatry are now broadcasting their own monthly podcasts that discuss some of the feature articles in each month’s issue.

Unlike many of the articles themselves, the podcasts are freely available to download from the moment they’re released.

The British podcasts are hosted by Dr Raj Persaud and involve interviews with researchers and discussions about the issues raised by their findings.

In contrast, the American podcasts sound like an excessively thorough lecture given by a voice synthesiser.

I suspect the American version is an attempt to produce an audio version of the academic paper, while the British podcasts could probably picked up by non-specialists who could still get an understanding of the area, and by specialists who would enjoy them even if they’d already read the paper itself.

It’s interesting to see how many scientific journals are now creating podcasts to accompany their publication, and hopefully this will make research more widely accessible to the public at large.

Link to British Journal of Psychiatry podcasts.
Link to American Journal of Psychiatry podcasts.

Getting a head in childhood

The Times covers research published in the journal Paediatrics indicating that head size at one year old predicts intelligence in later childhood.

A research team led by Dr Catherine Gale measured the head circumference of 633 children at birth, and regularly afterwards.

The kept in contact with the families and assessed the children at 4 and 8 years for mental performance.

The team found that intelligence was positively related both to head size at birth, and to head growth during childhood.

Interestingly, the same team did a study looking back at older people’s medical records and compared their head size at birth and in adulthood, to their IQ measured in their 60s and 70s.

They found no relationship between birth head size and current IQ, but did find a relationship between adult head size and IQ.

This may suggest that their are complex life-long factors affecting brain development that affect intelligence differently as we age.

Link to article in The Times.

Electrical brain stimulation for coma reversal

This is one I missed a couple of months ago: Wired had an article on a novel technique that might help rouse people from coma – applying electrical currents to spinal nerves to stimulate the brain.

The surgeon mentioned in the story, Edwin Cooper, has published a number of studies on the technique, which involves applying an electrical current to the right median nerve which connects directly to the spine.

A Japanese team is attempting to do something similar, but uses electrodes implanted directly in the spine itself to stimulate the dorsal column.

The idea behind the treatment is that the electrical current travels up the spinal nerves and boosts the reticular activating system, a part of the brain stem known to be involved in arousal and motivation.

This in turn should boost the activity of higher brain centres, including the thalamus and then the cortex.

More recently, Japanese researchers have attempted to use electrodes implanted directly in the brain to increase arousal, with some success in early trials.

As an aside, Edwin Cooper is a member of the Lifeboat Foundation, a futurist organisation that aims to develop technology to save the planet from cataclysmic events such as global pandemics or holocaust.

This includes “self-sustaining space colonies in case the other defensive strategies fail”.

Needless to say, Ray Kurzweil is involved.

Link to Wired article ‘Back From the Dead’.

God moves in mysterious waves

Discover magazine has an excellent article on the neuroscience of religious or spiritual experience, an area sometimes known as neurotheology.

Although researchers vary in their own spiritual beliefs, it is possible to be an atheist and still study spiritual experience.

Just as a complete understanding of the visual system wouldn’t disprove the existence of any particular object you see (after all, it could be a true perception, or it could be an illusion), studying the experience of God, doesn’t really tell us anything about whether God exists or not.

One of the most established researchers in this area is Dr Michael Persinger who has stimulated the temporal lobes with weak but shifting magnetic fields (using a modified helmet, pictured) and claims to have induced the experience of a ‘sensed presence’ in na√Øve volunteers.

Persinger notes that minor temporal lobe disturbances are common throughout the population, and are more common in people with high numbers of paranormal beliefs.

Supposedly, a form is the helmet is available for sale over the internet, although as the tag-line of the website is “Neurotheology, Magnetic Brain Stimulation, Deja Vu, Death, God, Sex, Love, and more” it sounds more like a track-listing from a Hawkwind album than a serious piece of research equipment.

The article covers most of the major neurotheology research groups, and gives an overview of their main aims.

Link to article ‘The God Experiments’.

Liquid psychiatry

Due to the public’s confusion over the difference between psychiatry and psychology, I have developed a minor hobby out of spotting the word ‘psychiatry’ in places it shouldn’t be.

This was inspired by hearing someone on the bus accuse her friend of using ‘reverse psychiatry’ on her.

Another one that seems to pop up is ‘abnormal psychiatry‘, which is presumably where doctors treat mental illness while acting a bit oddly.

One of my favourites though, is on a drinks can sold by sandwich shop Pret. The ‘Yoga Bunny Detox’ drink is advertised as being ‘liquid psychiatry’.

I’ve checked the ingredients, and there seems to be no trace of psychotropic drugs, so I presume it just takes my blood and interviews me for signs of psychopathology.

Any other sightings of out-of-place psychiatry would be gratefully received.

Serotonin Christmas decorations

Purveyor of molecular gifts and jewellery Made With Molecules has just launched a new line for Christmas: serotonin Christmas decorations for your tree.

They’ve also added to their existing range with jewellery made from the caffeine molecule, and the theobromine molecule – one of the psychoactive ingredients in chocolate.

So if you want to decorate either yourself or your house with drugs and neurotransmitters, you know where to go.

Link to Made With Molecules