The Violent Brain in new SciAmMind

A new Scientific American Mind has arrived and two of the feature articles are available online – one of which is on the neuroscience of violence.

The article makes a fantastic complement to the Science News article on psychopaths we featured previously.

It touches on psychopathy, but is more focused on the wider issues of non-psychopathic violence that could be triggered in anyone in the population.

Some people in the population engage in more violent acts than others and much research has focused on what are the social and biological risk factors that distinguish high from low-violence individuals.

The frontal lobes seems important as neural circuits here seem to be involved in preventing impulsive acts.

People who experience an abusive or impoverished childhood are also known to be at higher risk for violence, and it is possible that these experiences shape the function of the relevant circuits in the brain as it develops.

Genetics also plays a part, and recent findings that a version of a gene known as MAOA is linked to violence suggests that we may partly inherit a ‘violence threshold’. Brain Ethics has a fantastic article on this research if you want to know more.

The article also talks about the Dunedin project, an important and long-running study on development and psychopathology that has provided a huge amount of data in this, and many other areas.

The December edition of SciAmMind also has articles on the military applications of neuroscience, which we featured previously on Mind Hacks, and a number of articles only available to subscribers or in the print edition.

These include articles on migraine, hearing voices, cooperation, crying, brain-scan lie detecting and whether the teen brain is too rational.

UPDATE: I’ve just noticed that there’s a great article on Cognitive Daily examining a recent study on the interaction between guns, aggression and testosterone.

Link to SciAmMind article ‘The Violent Brain’.

Eli Lilly antipsychotic drug storm continues

The New York Times have published a second article based on internal documents from drug company Eli Lilly over the promotion of an antipsychotic medication known as Zyprexa or olanzapine – this time claiming that Eli Lilly have been deliberately promoting the drug for unlicensed conditions.

When a drug is ‘licensed’, this is not a license to prescribe the drug, but a license for the drug company to advertise it for a specific condition.

For example, olanzapine is licensed for schizophrenia, meaning it can be advertised as treatment for this condition.

However, doctors have the freedom to prescribe the drug for anything they want to if they think it will help. This is known as ‘off-label’ prescribing.

Promoting ‘off-label’ prescribing is illegal, however, and the article in the New York Times suggests Eli Lilly has been doing exactly this by marketing the use of olanzapine for dementia and undiagnosed psychotic symptoms.

This campaign was allegedly targeted at ‘primary care physicians’ (i.e. GPs or non-specialist doctors) rather than specialists.

In terms of marketing, pharmaceutical companies often consider GPs to be soft targets as they have to know ‘a little about a lot’, and so are more likely to be persuaded by selective data on a particular topic.

From the article:

The documents also show that Lilly encouraged primary care doctors to treat the symptoms and behaviors of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder even if the doctors had not actually diagnosed those diseases in their patients. Lilly’s market research had found that many primary care doctors did not consider themselves qualified to treat people with schizophrenia or severe bipolar disorder.

In response to these and previous allegation made by the New York Times, Eli Lilly have issued a statement denying any wrongdoing and have suggested that the allegations are based on an unrepresentative selection of company documents:

The Times failed to mention that these leaked documents are a tiny fraction of the more than 11 million pages of documents provided by Lilly as part of the litigation process. They do not accurately portray Lilly’s conduct. As part of Lilly’s commitment to patients and healthcare professionals, many high-level Lilly physicians and researchers — along with researchers from outside Lilly — were engaged for a number of years to study the issue of Zyprexa and diabetes. Leaked documents involving these discussions do not represent an accurate view of company strategy or conduct.

Link to NYT article ‘Drug Files Show Maker Promoted Unapproved Use’.
Link to response from Eli Lilly.

A Place for Consciousness

A new edition of hardcore consciousness research journal Psyche has just been released online with a special issue focusing on consciousness, causation and the links to the physical structure of the brain.

All the papers are freely available online, and address the arguments put forward in philosopher Gregg Rosenberg’s influential book A Place for Consciousness (ISBN 0195168143).

Rosenberg has a page about the book, with several of the key chapters available online.

In fact, for those wanting a quick overview of his theory, he’s put together some PowerPoint slides which explain the key points in nine easy steps.

The new edition of Psyche examines Rosenberg’s arguments in some detail, as the link between consciousness and brain function, and the causal role of mental phenomena are two of the most important and difficult parts of modern consciousness research.

Link to Psyche.
Link to page on Rosenberg’s book with chapters and summary.

Vegetarians have higher childhood IQ

…although a third seem to suffer from conceptual problems! A paper published this week by the British Medical Journal report that children with higher IQs tend to go on to become vegetarian.

Adults who classified themselves as vegetarian tended to be five points higher in IQ when they were tested at age 10.

Interestingly, the results remained stable after education and social class were controlled for.

However, a third of people who classified themselves as vegetarian ate chicken or fish, suggesting most people work with a reasonably flexible definition.

This study is from a research group in Southhampton who are looking at the link between childhood factors and adult brain development.

We recently reported on an earlier study on childhood head size and IQ.

Link to write-up from BBC News.
Link to abstract from the BMJ.

Build your own brain stimulator

OpenStim is a community that aims to develop a magnetic brain stimulator which you can build and use in your own home.

The technique is known as ‘transcranial magnetic stimulation’ or TMS. In essence, TMS is a powerful computer controlled electromagnet that sends focused magnetic pulses into the brain.

The magnetic field induces a current in the neurons, which then become stimulated as a result.

This can be used to alter the brain in specific ways, either activating or deactivating certain areas of the cortex.

This is often used for neuroscience research. For example, if you suspect that a certain brain area is involved during a certain task, you can alter the function of the brain area and see if participants perform the task any differently.

Existing research has used this technique and has shown that stimulating certain areas improves mood or, in some instances, cognitive performance.

The OpenStim project states their aims as:

1. Create a community that designs the core technology for a safe, highly functional, inexpensive, efficacious noninvasive transcranial magnetic stimulator (TMS) device for stimulating the central nervous system.

2. Facilitate experimentation and exchange of ideas, on the topic of modulation of brain function in a variety of people and contexts, so that we can learn more about the neural circuits mediating our subjective experiences, and improve mental functions (aka hacking your brain).

Although they aim to build a “safe” device, I can’t actually see anything on their site which specifies exactly what they define as safe.

In the research, TMS most commonly refers to specifically designed high powered electromagnets that pump out about 1-1.5 Tesla of field strength in millisecond bursts.

This is very powerful, although because of the thickness of the skull and the need to use only the most focused part of the magnetic field, it is only enough to reliably discharge a few centimetres square of neurons just below the skull.

However, a significant danger is that with enough pulses, a seizure is triggered.

Most of the protocols in the TMS literature and research centres are designed to avoid this. When these limits are adhered to, TMS is very safe and no long-lasting effects have been found.

However, even if you make sure you keep within the accepted ‘safe limits’ for TMS stimulation, with home-built kit you are less likely to be sure that your equipment is genuinely doing what it is supposed to.

In other words, builder beware! Your brain is fragile, so make sure you know the risks before altering it in anyway.

Link to OpenStim project.

Light sleep

A poem on the collective unconsciousness of sleep by British poet John Hegley:

Light Sleep

Early in the evening I like to have a kip and dip
into the pool of communal unconcious;
resting, passive,
where whatever size of a drip you are
you make the whole
more massive.

Hegley’s poems are a mixture of the whimsical, insightful and touching. We’ve featured the Hegley poem ‘Outsider art’ previously on Mind Hacks.

The woman who thinks like a cow

Google Video seems to have the full length documentary on Prof Temple Grandin, a world expert on animal science who was diagnosed with autism as a child.

As well as her academic work which has been hugely influential around the world, she has also written several books on the psychology of autism that have become widely read by professionals and the public alike.

Her story first became known as she was included as a case study in neurologist Oliver Sacks’ book An Anthropologist on Mars.

Interestingly, Grandin suggests that her autism helps her understand animals, as she suggests they have similar styles of thinking in some instances.

In the programme, Grandin explains her work and views on autism. Furthermore, the documentary highlights her as a bright and engaging person, far from the usual stereotypes of autistic people.

Link to video of ‘The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow’.
Link to Prof Temple Grandin’s website.

Did Eli Lilly cover up antipsychotic dangers?

The New York Times has obtained documents suggesting that drug company Eli Lilly deliberately tried to cover up life-threatening side-effects of one of its most widely used antipsychotic drugs – known as Zyprexa or olanzapine.

Antipsychotic drugs are largely used to treat hallucinations and delusions and seem to have their main effect by blocking ‘D2‘ dopamine receptors in the mesolimbic pathway of the brain.

Antipsychotics are far from perfect. They all have serious side-effects and don’t seem to help about 25% of psychotic patients.

Nevertheless, as the first effective treatment for psychosis they are one of the most significant advances in the history of psychiatry.

The newer generation of antipsychotic drugs, called ‘atypical antipsychotics’, of which olanzapine is one, were originally marketed as having fewer side effects than the first generation ‘typical antipsychotics’.

However, it is now clear that the newer drugs don’t seem to have less side-effects, just different ones.

Instead of producing a Parkinson’s disease-like movement disorder (a big problem with the older antipsychotics), the newer medications are more likely to increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

In short, atypical antipsychotics make you fat, often dangerously so, and olanzapine is thought to have one of the strongest weight-gain effects.

So the fact that olanzapine has side-effects is not breaking news.

What is new, however, is that Eli Lilly seem to have known about these side-effects before they were common knowledge while simultaneously attempting to play-down and obscure them through marketing.

In 2002, for example, Lilly rejected plans to give psychiatrists guidance about how to treat diabetes, worrying that doing so would tarnish Zyprexa’s reputation. “Although M.D.’s like objective, educational materials, having our reps provide some with diabetes would further build its association to Zyprexa,” a Lilly manager wrote in a March 2002 e-mail message.

But Lilly did expand its marketing to primary care physicians, who its internal studies showed were less aware of Zyprexa’s side effects. Lilly sales material encouraged representatives to promote Zyprexa as a “safe, gentle psychotropic” suitable for people with mild mental illness.

This has only come to light because lawyer James B. Gottstein gave The New York Times internal documents that Eli Lilly originally released to someone else on the condition they wouldn’t be made public.

Despite their problems, psychiatric drugs are a valuable treatment for mental illness.

Unfortunately, as a number of recent exposés have highlighted, the drug industry is rife with spin, cover-ups, dodgy data and questionable marketing strategies.

This makes it difficult to make a reasonable assessment of the costs and benefits of these drugs for both working psychiatrists and the general public.

We can only hope that in the future pharmaceutical companies will be more honest about the negative effects of their drugs as well as the positive, meaning better treatment for all.

In the mean time, No Free Lunch is a campaign group asking doctors not to take drug company gifts and to take a critical look at corporate promotion.

Whether you’re a clinician or consumer, their web site has plenty of research and material which is an effective antidote to healthcare hype.

Link to NYT article ‘Eli Lilly Said to Play Down Risk of Top Pill’ (via TWS).
Link to No Free Lunch.

My DNA contains the Milky Way

I’ve just discovered that The Times published a wonderfully insightful and moving account of psychosis from a young woman diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.

Schizoaffective disorder is a diagnosis that indicates that the person experiences symptoms of both schizophrenia-like psychosis, and a serious mood disorder such as depression or bipolar.

The author of the article is Philippa King, who has been affected by mental illness since her childhood and experienced and continues to experiences intense hallucinations and delusions.

Her account is a striking commentary on both the mental health system and the experience of otherworldly states.

“You’re such a fool, a loser, idiot! They know your every move.” The voices I hear are abusive and critical. They can also be bizarre: “We are stoplights”, “You’re just cheap chocolate”, “Crazy lazy point-blank bicycle‚Äù. They produce a running commentary on my day-to-day actions or talk about me to each other. “Slash your wrist!” Worn down by the commands, I do as they say. I wrote in my diary: “It will be important to break the language barrier so all will underwater the manage the message.” I once sewed nine buttons on to my sleeve because someone said “nine or so” in conversation. It seemed terribly important to do so. It is not uncommon for people with schizophrenia like me to make up new words.

It distresses me that my thoughts are broadcast on the radio.

My DNA contains the whole of the Milky Way. I am constantly being pursued by enemies and lovers. I have scissored a mark from my skin, knowing it to be a tracking device planted by the Government. There are no locks, no devices to prevent intruders of the mind. There can be the frightening sensation of insects crawling beneath my skin. My food can suddenly turn into maggots. The round of my skull is the dome of the heavens with the world moving both inside and outside my head.

This is a remarkably lucid account of psychosis and a must-read for those interested in how the mind drifts into altered-realities during severe mental illness.

Link to Times article ‘A mind taut with pain’.
Link to more information about schizoaffective disorder.

Inside the mind of a psychopath

The cover story in this week’s Science News is an in-depth investigation into the science of psychopaths and psychopathy.

The article is a fantastic round-up of much of the most recent work on the neuroscience and psychology of psychopathy, and clarifies exactly what is meant when someone is diagnosed as being a ‘psychopath’.

One psychopathic offender murdered his ex-girlfriend to stop her from interfering with his new relationship. Another psychopathic inmate arranged and committed the murder of his wife to cash in her life insurance policy.

In contrast, a large majority of the nonpsychopathic prisoners had killed someone in the heat of the moment or upon reaching an emotional breaking point.

Porter measured psychopathy using a tool called the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). This clinical-rating scale, devised by psychologist Robert D. Hare of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, has served as the gold standard of psychopathy tests for about 20 years.

In this approach, a psychologist or psychiatrist interviews a person and reviews his or her criminal record. The rater then judges whether any of 20 psychopathy-related traits applies to that person. These traits include being superficial, acting grandiosely, lying frequently, showing no remorse, lacking empathy, refusing to accept responsibility for misdeeds, behaving impulsively, and having committed many crimes.

The article also looks at an increasing area of research – non-criminal psychopaths.

These are supposedly people with many of the psychopathic personality traits who don’t come in contact with the law or legal system. Many supposedly thrive in business, where socially underhand but lawful tactics can be an advantage.

If you want a good overview of the current state of psychopathy research, the Science News article is a remarkably good summary, although the recent study on the recognition of facial emotion in psychopaths was too new to be included.

Link to Science News article ‘The Predator’s Gaze’ (via BB).
Link to previous Mind Hacks post on ‘The Mask of Sanity’.

2006-12-15 Spike activity

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

The psychology of conjuring is pondered by medical ethicist and semi-professional magician Dr Daniel Sokol.

Moral mazes and human cognition are investigated by The Mouse Trap.

The Guardian has a short article on a case of focal dystonia (localised muscle spasms) caused specifically by praying. The medical journal has a video in mpg format online.

Mixing Memory suggests a candidate for the coolest experiment ever. And it is pretty cool.

Baby psychotherapy. WTF?

Marvin Minksy and Daniel Dennett discuss emotion and artificial intelligence.

The New York Times has a weird interview with neuropsychiatrist Dr. Louann Brizendine on her new book ‘The Female Brain’.

The cognitive neuroscience of alexythimia, a condition where people can’t describe their emotions, is tackled by The Neurocritic.

A new study attempting to capture the neuroscience of why laughter is infectious is covered by Nature.

The quantum mechanics of smell. How cool is that?

BBC News reports that the first ‘brain bypass’ operation is performed in the UK.

Cognitive Daily examines the experimental psychology of buying people the right presents.

Dilated pupils and the dynamic brain

Cutting-edge cognitive science blog Developing Intelligence has a fantastic article on pupil dilation and its likely link to mental processing and arousal.

The eyes are fascinating for neuroscientists as they show the only part of the central nervous system visible from outside the body – namely, the retina.

Areas of the frontal lobes, called the frontal eye fields are specifically involved in eye movements (often called ‘saccades’) and eye movements are known to reflect a range of cognitive abilities.

Hence, eye movements are studied as a way of trying to understand what might be going on in the brain, particularly in people experiencing mental illness.

According to the new research, however, pupil dilation may also be an important measure of brain function.

One study has shown that it could be directly related to the amount of information held in memory:

In the most compelling finding from this literature, pupil diameter has been observed to increase with each successive item maintained in memory, up until each subject’s working memory capacity – and then to contract incrementally as each item is reported back to the experimenter.

As always, there’s a wonderfully thorough analysis over at Developing Intelligence so head over there if you want some more startling details of this developing field.

Link to article ‘Eyes, Window to the Soul – and to Dopamine Levels?’

Forensic psychologists tackle Ipswich murder cases

With the tragic and chilling news that the bodies of five women have been found in woodland near Ipswich in the UK, forensic psychology has featured heavily in the news as the police hunt to catch the killer intensifies.

Forensic psychology is psychology applied to the law or legal system. For example, it can involve treating mentally ill prisoners, assessing people for court evidence, working with legal staff, or, in this case, analysing crime patterns to build up a profile of the likely offender.

In the current cases, the forensic psychologists are likely to be looking carefully at the evidence and seeing how well it matches known psychological characteristics of similar cases in the past.

While TV usually portrays this as giving a ‘personality profile’ of possible suspect or suspects, it could also suggest lifestyle, occupation or motivations.

This might not be enough to describe a single person, but might significantly reduce the field or allow the police to eliminate a number of suspects.

The Times had a short article yesterday, which includes audio (mp3) of forensic psychologist Dr David Nias discussing possible motivations of the killer.

However, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this and many of the other press stories are based on interviews with individual forensic psychologists who probably only have access to information from the media, and so are best considered as professional speculation.

New Scientist seems to have the best coverage and discusses the limitations and difficulties of offender profiling as well as its potential contributions to the ongoing investigation.

In light of the tragic circumstances, we can only wish the best for the investigation and the victims’ friends and families.

Link to NewSci article ‘Forensic psychologists tackle UK serial killer’.

The Echo Maker

The Echo Maker (ISBN 0374146357) is the latest novel by American writer Richard Powers that centres around someone who develops Capgras delusion after suffering brain injury during a car crash.

Capgras delusion is the belief that someone, usually a spouse or close relative, has been replaced by an identical (or near-identical) looking impostor.

It most commonly occurs in the context of schizophrenia, but most of the research on the condition has been done on people who have developed it after brain injury.

It seems to be particularly associated with damage to the right-hemisphere of the brain (as most brain injury-related delusions are), but research suggests it might be particularly linked to the loss of the automatic emotional response to familiar faces.

Current theories suggest that this damage could lead to someone being able to recognise and identify a familiar face, while also having the feeling that something doesn’t feel ‘quite right’, potentially causing a delusional belief that the person is an impostor if there are also impairments with reasoning.

The Echo Maker won the National Book Award in the USA and has made several ‘best of 2006’ lists, but hasn’t been released in the UK yet, so, annoyingly, I’ve not been able to get hold of a copy.

Philip K. Dick’s short story Impostor is widely cited as another fictional example of Capgras delusion (most probably because it got made into a film), although another one of his short stories, The Father Thing, is a much better match.

Link to Wikipedia page on ‘The Echo Maker’.
Link to page with reviews of the book (thanks Paddy!).

PsyOps during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war

Propaganda news site PsyWar have just published an article on the ‘psychological warfare’ tactics used in the Israel-Lebanon war earlier this year.

PsyWar keeps meticulous archives of propaganda leaflets from wars past and present, as well as charting the increasingly sophisticated psychological techniques from both sides of contemporary conflicts.

The article notes that information warfare was used extensively in both sides of the Israel-Lebanon conflict, and has English translations of much of the propaganda.

There’s good evidence that leaflets were delivered by artillery units with ‘leaflet shells’ and electronic messages figured heavily in the campaign.

Interestingly, the end of the article has what are claimed to be the principles used by an advertising agency hired to promote a post-war message of victory.

Link to PsyWar article ‘Psychological Operations during the Israel-Lebanon War 2006’.
Link to previous Mind Hacks post on PsyWar.