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.

A visual record of madness in 50s France

Luminous Lint has published a collection of evocative images by photographer Jean-Philippe Charbonnier who documented French psychiatric hospitals and psychiatric patients in the 1950s.

Some of the most important developments in psychiatry have happened in France.

Physician Phillipe Pinel was one of the first people to advocate humane treatment for patients with mental illness and epilepsy.

A famous painting shows him overseeing the removal of chains from patients at the Salpêtrière Hospital in 1795 Paris.

The photo collection shows French psychiatry in the 1950s and contain both hopeful and desperate scenes.

This sort of historical record is important both to realise how far psychiatry has developed since these bygone days, and to pick up where change still needs to occur.

Link to Jean-Philippe Charbonnier photo collection (via BB).

Working in the future imperfect

The aesthetically and intellectually compelling PsyBlog has a great article arguing that long-term career planning is often a waste of time as research has shown that we are unlikely to be able to predict what will make us happy in the future.

The research was a paper from Daniel Gilbert’s lab, that specifically studies happiness, how we understand it, and how it is affected by life events and our choices.

Gilbert has written a book about his research called Stumbling on Happiness that discusses the fact that although we think we know what will make us happy, it rarely does.

PsyBlog notes one particular experiment that highlights this effect:

My favourite is a simple experiment in which two groups of participants get free sandwiches if they participate in the experiment – a doozie for any undergraduate.

One group has to choose which sandwiches they want for an entire week in advance. The other group gets to choose which they want each day. A fascinating thing happens. People who choose their favourite sandwich each day at lunchtime also often choose the same sandwich. This group turns out to be reasonably happy with its choice.

Amazingly, though, people choosing in advance assume that what they’ll want for lunch next week is a variety. And so they choose a turkey sandwich Monday, tuna on Tuesday, egg on Wednesday and so on. It turn out that when next week rolls around they generally don’t like the variety they thought they would. In fact they are significantly less happy with their choices than the group who chose their sandwiches on the day.

The PsyBlog post draws these findings out and applies them to making career choices.

How will we know what make us happy in even 5 years away if we can’t even predict what sandwiches we’d be most happy with during the following week?

Link to PsyBlog post ‘Why Career Planning Is Time Wasted’.

Autism, In My Language

Amanda Baggs is a young woman with autism and she’s created a powerful and articulate video that ‘translates’ from her world of environmental interaction to the neurotypical form of speech and perception.

As well as a stunning view into how she experiences and makes sense of the world, it’s also a forceful philosophical argument concerning how the mainstream understands people who don’t think or communicate in a conventional way.

Presumably speech-less (either through choice or development), Baggs communicates to the viewer using a voice synthesiser and on-screen text.

She has also put many of her medical notes online, sharpening the contrast between our assumptions about autism, and the message she deftly communicates.

Well worth watching to the end. A profound and exciting insight into an alternative humanity.

Link to YouTube video ‘In My Language’ (via Joy of Autism).

What we still don’t know

The February edition of Wired magazine has a special feature on 42 of the biggest unanswered questions in science. Several of them concern the mind, brain and behaviour.

How the brain creates consciousness is, perhaps, one of the most obvious ones.

If you’re not familiar with sleep research, you might find the question about why we sleep a surprising inclusion. However, the difficulty with conducting neuropsychology experiments on sleeping people makes this a very difficult question to answer, despite some fascinating ongoing research.

The evolution of language is, perhaps, an example of the problem in reverse. Doing experiments on language is much easier, because we understand the system so we can manipulate meaning and syntax independently. However, the sheer complexity of language makes it a mammoth task.

Placebos are also a curious and mysterious phenomenon, and inspire wider questions about how expectation and suggestion affects the function of the body.

The final question concerns how the brain calculates movement. There are an infinite number of possible muscle movements that allow you to perform the same action – for example, picking up a cup.

Think about it for a second. You could just grab the cup, or walk to India first. Even if you chose the near option, each tiny adjustment to the muscles can be modified ad infinitum.

To pick up the cup, the brain has to choose the most efficient action out of an infinite number of possibilities. Working through an infinite number of possibilities should take infinite time, yet we move fluidly and often without conscious thought.

Interestingly, you can help clarify the issues and answer the question to the best of current knowledge, as each entry has a link to a wiki where you can make your suggestions for each mini-article.

Link to Wired on “What We Don’t Know”.

Call of the weird

Film-maker Louis Theroux has written an insightful article for the BBC website about society’s view of weirdness and his experience of meeting out-of-the-ordinary people.

He suggests that ‘weirdness’ is in the eye of the beholder as the idea of what makes someone ‘weird’ is just the result of our transient views of what is considered normal, regardless of how common the actual opinion or behaviour is.

Furthermore, he notes that ‘weird’ behaviour is often understandable if you put yourself in the person’s shoes.

Though it’s been helpful as a kind of short-hand for the sort of stories I do, the term “weirdness” actually does a disservice to the people I cover. Looking closer at what seemed – at first hand – the oddest of behaviour and I’ve always found a kind of logic.

I was recently reading a book of neurological essays called Phantoms in the Brain, which had an introduction by neurologist Oliver Sacks. He discussed brain disorders with symptoms that to me seemed very weird indeed – patients who don’t recognise their own limbs as belonging to them, for example, or who sometimes think one side of their body belongs to someone else.

But these are, he says, “quite normal defence mechanisms” which the unconscious uses to make sense of the world. “Such an understanding removes such patients from the realm of the mad or the freakish,” he continues, “and restores them to the realm of discourse and reason – albeit the discourse and reason of the unconscious.”

It’s interesting that Theroux makes a connection between people considered ‘socially weird’ and those considered ‘clinically disordered’.

There’s a been an ongoing debate in psychiatry about the extent to which particular psychiatric diagnoses are influenced by social perceptions of certain behaviour and the wish to classify them as different.

For example, people will regularly talk about “the mentally ill” as if they were a coherent group (e.g ‘these health reforms will affect the mentally ill’) but almost never talk about “the physically ill” in the same way.

We know that mental illness is not a cut-and-dry affair. Psychosis, for example, is found on a continuum with everybody having psychosis-like experiences to some degree.

People diagnosed with psychotic disorders just have very frequent or intense experiences that cause them distress or impairment. The rest of us hardly notice them or aren’t bothered by them if they do occur.

In other words, the odd beliefs and behaviours of the ‘weird’ are just part of life’s rich tapestry.

Theroux ends by saying that “weird beliefs” never stood in the way of him making a human connection, which is another way of saying that we classify people are weird to put unnecessary distance between ‘them’ and ‘us’, when in reality, there is only us.

Link to article ‘Weird, or just in search of meaning?’.

Kicking the habit the hard way

A study published in today’s edition of Science reports that nicotine addicted patients who acquired damage to the insula – an area just behind the temporal lobes – reported that the urge to smoke reduced after their brain damage occurred.

The insula is coloured red in the diagram on the right and has been heavily linked to emotional responses, particularly the perception and experience of disgust.

However, this new study, led by Nasir Naqvi, suggests that the insula is also heavily involved in addiction-related cravings.

Studying patients with brain damage is one of the most powerful methods in cognitive neuroscience.

While brain scans can tell you which areas of the brain might be associated with a particular experience or behaviour, they can’t tell you whether that area is necessary or not.

If you think a brain area might be crucial for a certain process, finding someone who has damage to that area should confirm whether your idea is correct or not by seeing whether they still have the ability or experience you think is linked to the area.

In Bechara and colleagues’ study, they included a series of patients who had insula damage, either after suffering a stroke, or after having it deliberately removed as part of brain surgery to treat epilepsy or brain cancer.

Because this sort of damage is rarely precise and causes damage to a number of areas in addition to the insula, a series of patients was studied.

While other damage was present, the patients only had insula damage in common.

This means when group results are analysed, the strongest overall effect should be related to insula damage, whereas effects from damage to other areas wouldn’t be as apparent, because it’s not common to all patients.

The researchers compared the group with insula damage to other smokers who had suffered non-insula brain damage by measuring who quit smoking, how strong the cravings were and how easy it was to give up.

Insula-damaged patients were much more likely to have quit smoking than the other patients, to experience less cravings, and to have found it easier to give up.

The researchers start their paper by noting that “cigarette smoking [is] the most common preventable cause of morbidity and mortality in the developed world”.

You can bet this study will cause massive interest in the pharmaceutical industry who will be attempting to work out the neurochemistry of the insula to try and create drugs which will make treating addiction easier.

Undoubtedly, education and prevention will be much cheaper, but it’s hard to make money out of people who don’t become addicted.

That’s progress for you.

Link to ScienceNow write-up of study.
Link to study abstract.

2007-02-26 Spike activity

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

NPR radio has a special on teenage sleep: how it works and sleeping better.

There’s a careful analysis of differences in the structure of the left and right hemispheres of the brain over at Developing Intelligence.

American Scientist has an interview with ergonomist and author Steven Casey.

A new drug seems to show early positive results in treating glioblastomas – one of the most difficult and dangerous forms of brain cancer.

‘You are what you expect’ according to The New York Times.

Folic acid supplements may help maintain mental abilities in older adults, reports New Scientist.

Activation in an area of the right temporal lobe when viewing others’ actions is associated with self-reported altruism – a story that got so muddled in the press it’s best just reading the study abstract.

Cognitive Daily examines research that suggests that the brain responds differently to metaphor and irony.

What is it like to be a manbat? (Philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel has a blog – cool!).

Pure Pedantry has a wonderful post on perceptual binding and the binding problem.

A life in forensic psychiatry

The January edition of the Royal College of Psychiatrists podcast has an interview with Prof John Gunn about his life working in forensic psychiatry.

Forensic psychiatry, the branch of medicine that deals with mentally ill offenders, is something that you rarely hear about unless there’s a (usually sensationalised) story in the newspapers about a crime having being committed by someone with a psychiatric disorder.

It is a fascinating area, and the people who work in forensic psychiatry are often completely absorbing to talk to. If you ever get the chance, ask a forensic psychiatrist about their work.

Psychiatry, in general, is not considered glamorous. When was the last time you saw a politician having a photo call with a group of psychiatric patients?

Can you even imagine a politician having their photo taken with a man who killed his mother when psychotic, because he believed she was trying to poison him?

This is what makes forensic psychiatry so interesting. It attempts to help some of the most stigmatised and shamed people in society.

It also tries to balance this with managing risk from the small minority of people who offend when mentally ill.

And it’s not just risk to others. For example, people with schizophrenia are 14 times more likely to be victims of violence than the perpetrators, and so forensic psychiatry also tries to reduce the risk of harm to the patient.

In the podcast interview, Prof Gunn talks about the profession, how he became interested in working in the area, and you hear a lot about what forensic psychiatrists do.

Well worth a listen if you’ve ever been curious about the speciality.

The interview starts 17 minutes into the podcast.

Link to January Royal College of Psychiatrists podcast page.