Electra Brain!

If you’ve always harboured secret Dr Frankenstein fantasies (and let’s face it, who hasn’t?) what better way to unleash your inner re-animator than by having a glowing brain lamp?

Yes, it’s a plasma lamp in the shape of a brain, so you can dance lightening across your glass cortex with the touch of your finger.

Just don’t cackle loudly enough to frighten the locals, whatever you do.

Link to ‘Electra Brain’ details (via OmniBrain).

A neuroanatomist’s stroke of insight

Sound Medicine has a fascinating podcast interview with Dr Jill Bolte Taylor a neuroanatomist who experienced a stroke that damaged her brain and fundamentally changed her perception of the world.

A stroke is when the blood supply to the brain get interrupted, often because an artery gets blocked, it swells, or bursts.

Taylor notes that she didn’t ‘suffer’ a stroke, but ‘experienced’ one, as despite the significant impairment, she found the whole experience an amazing insight into how her brain degraded and repaired after damage.

In the interview, her sense of wonder at the effect of this sudden change in brain function is quite infectious.

Taylor has written a book about her experiences called My Stroke of Insight (ISBN 1430300612) which recounts how the stroke affected her life and mind.

If you’re interested in how mind and brain scientists make sense of their own personal experiences of neurological disorder, there’s a wonderful book called Injured Brains of Medical Minds which is a collection of writing on the topic.

If you want to know how to detect the signs of a stroke and want to know what life-saving action you could take, there’s a fantastic information page here.

Link to podcast webpage.
mp3 of podcast interview.
Link to ‘What You Need to Know About Stroke’ infomation.

Developing a thought controlled wheelchair

Wired has a report and video on a research project by Spanish researchers to develop a wheelchair which can be controlled by a brain-computer interface.

Brain-computer interfaces are big news at the moment, although most of the excitement is focused on the sci-fi-like interfaces that implant directly into the brain.

These systems are all lab-based prototypes at the moment so it’s interesting to see the Spanish team, led by Dr Javier Minguez, use off the shelf parts to attempt to make something that could be widely available.

The system will read and process from brain signals via EEG to determine the intended direction, but also use an electronic collision avoidance system to help the wheelchair make fine-grained adjustments.

While most the media attention focuses on direct brain implants, it is this sort of remarkably practical approach that will most quickly produce a potentially life-enhancing and relatively low-cost solution for severely paralysed people.

Link to Wired article ‘A Wheelchair That Reads Your Mind’ (with video).
Link to Javier Minguez’s webpage with more info.

Wolf in sheep’s clothing

There’s a fascinating case report in the medical journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica about a man who became psychotic and developed the delusional belief that his mother had transformed into a wolf.

Lycanthropy is the name given to the mythical condition that causes someone to turn into a werewolf.

However, it’s also the name given to the psychiatric syndrome where someone becomes psychotic and believes they have tranformed or are transforming into another animal. It’s a fascinating condition as I discussed in a past article.

This case report is the first to describe a case where the person believed someone else was transforming into an animal, in this case a wolf:

He stated that he was captured by devil and sometimes his thoughts or
body were controlled by its power. Sometimes he had auditory hallucinations and heard the sound of drumming.

He said that he had drooling from his mouth for no apparent reason. He also claimed that this feeling caused some other changes in him, for example, he had previously had doubts about his ability to command animals and had now seen cats obey his commands.

He was from a low socioeconomic family and lived with all of his family members in a single room. His parents lay him down between themselves. One night sleeping beside her mother he had a dream. He saw a few undistinguishable creatures which reminded him of animals. He awoke and felt air flow coming out of his nostrils which changed his mother into a wolf. After this event his restlessness and agitation had become worse and finally he was admitted into the psychiatric ward.

Interestingly, the author, Dr Alireza Nejad, is a psychiatrist in Iran, and has written a number of fascinating papers on rare delusional syndromes.

Link to PubMed entry for case report.

Motherly stress and the unborn baby

BBC News has a report on a recent conference presentation by Prof Vivette Glover suggesting that mother’s stress can affect the brain development of an unborn child.

If you are pregnant, don’t panic, the effect has only been found for quite intense stresses, but these do seem to increase the chances of the child developing behavioural problems later in life.

Actually, the idea that motherly stress could affect the unborn child’s chance of developing mental illness is not new.

One of the earliest reports on this was a paper from 1978 who looked at mothers affected by the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939, later to become known as the Winter War.

Researchers tracked down mothers who were pregnant when their partners were killed in the conflict, and compared them to mothers who were also pregnant at the time of the war, but whose partners were not killed in the fighting.

They found that children born to mothers whose partners were killed were more likely to develop schizophrenia later in life than the children born to mothers with partners who survived, suggesting that the stress of grief affected the child’s neurodevelopment.

This is thought to be due, at least in part, to the effect of stress-related hormone cortisol from the mother affecting the development of the foetus’ nervous system.

Interestingly, a similar increase in cases has also been found for children born to women who lived through physically and psychologically stressful famines – one in China and one in Holland.

It is well known that birth complications can lead to a slight increase risk for schizophrenia later in life, probably because of the effect on the brain.

It is fascinating to think that the mother’s experiences can influence the development of the unborn child’s brain, however indirectly it might occur.

Link to BBC News story on conference presentation.

Encephalon 15 at Sharp Brains

The 15th edition of psychology and neuroscience writing carnival Encephalon has just arrived online, this time ably hosted by brain fitness blog SharpBrains.

A couple of my favourites include a wonderfully informative post from Blog Around the Clock on the biological clock and a video of Jonah Lehrer’s talk on Walt Whitman’s connection to modern neuroscience.

There are many more fascinating pieces, so wander over and have a browse.

The next edition of Encephalon will be hosted here, so if you have any writing you wish to submit, send it in.

Link to 15th edition of Encephalon.

I won’t be complete until I lose a limb

Today’s Guardian has a fascinating first person account by someone with ‘body identity integrity disorder’ or BIID. The condition is where people are uncomfortable with their bodies, usually a particular healthy limb, and want to have it amputated.

Importantly, people who have this desire are not psychotic, and it’s not a sexual fetish, they just have this intense desire that they should be an amputee.

Individuals will often go to extreme lengths to have a limb amputated. A recent case in the medical literature described how a man used bandages and pipe clamps to try and cut the blood off to his legs so they would require amputation.

His legs were finally amputated after suffering irreversible frostbite after applying dry ice to them for 7 hours. Interestingly, a similar technique was used by the woman in The Guardian article.

A 2005 article in The New York Times also discussed this fascinating condition, and it was the subject of a 2003 documentary by film maker Melody Gilbert.

How we represent the body and our body image in the brain is still quite mysterious.

For example, after amputation about 90% of people will experience a phantom limb – sensations of touch and movement seeming to arise from the previous location of the amputated limb.

However, people who have a limb missing at birth (who never had one to start with) can also experience phantom limbs, suggesting that we can develop with curiously distorted body representations from the very beginning.

Link to article ‘I won’t be happy until I lose my legs’ (thanks Tom!).
Link to NYT article on BIID.
Link to info on BIID documentary Whole.
Link to full text paper on phantom limbs from birth.