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.