Psychiatry on the move

The Royal College of Psychiatrists is now releasing ‘continuing professional development’ podcasts, which sound dull, but are actually fascinating discussions of new and developing issues in psychology and psychiatry.

CPD is a requirment for clinicians to make sure they keep training throughout their careers. It is designed to update them up with the latest developments in their field.

The CPD podcasts take the form of extended interviews with people who are also interviewed for the British Journal of Psychiatry podcasts we featured previously.

In the CPD podcasts, however, the discussion focuses on related psychological or neuroscientific theories and the how they can be apply to clinical situations.

With the additional material on the site, British psychiatrists can then take an accredited test to demonstrate their learning.

Despite being aimed at qualified psychiatrists, the discussions are remarkably accessible.

Recent programmes have tackled the neuropsychology of empathy, whether trials for psychiatric drugs are truly objective, and making judgements of someone’s future risk for violence.

Link to psychiatry CPD podcasts.

Brain fitness carnival

The brain fitness freaks at cognitive enhancement blog Sharp Brains have launched a Brain Fitness carnival so they can create a regular digest of self-submitted online articles.

The first edition is due out on Friday January 17th so get your submissions sent in if you want to be included.

Sharp Brains is also a company that wants to develop commercial mental exercise programmes based on sound science to help improve and maintain cognitive function.

They even envisage ‘Brain Gyms’ so you could drop in after work and pump some mental iron:

We at SharpBrains believe that Brain Fitness will grow one day to become as widespread as physical fitness, and that Brain Fitness Centers or “brain gyms” will complement today’s gyms.

Ha! Make a (NSFW) sexy pop video out of that one Eric Prydz!

Link to details of the upcoming Brain Fitness carnival.
Link to carnival homepage.

New season of BBC All in the Mind kicks off

A new season of the BBC radio programme All in the Mind (not to be confused with the Australian ABC Radio programme of the same name) has just started and you can listen to the archives online.

The BBC version, to be fair, is a little more starched than the Aussie version, but covers a wider range of topics each week.

The first edition, broadcast just before Christmas, looked at the impact of reality TV on children who have been the subject of such TV programmes, and visits a unique suicide prevention drop-in centre.

The second in the series, broadcast tonight and available online from tomorrow evening, looks at false confessions and whether we all have think of the same colour when we think of a colour word.

It will also discuss the technology behind neurofeedback – a technique for ‘training the brain’ by turning EEG signals into something you can monitor and, therefore, learn to change.

As the technology has become cheaper, neurofeedback is becoming big business, with some dubious claims being made on its behalf (as a web search demonstrates).

However, despite the wild promises of some unscrupulous clinics, there is some sound science behind it and some early evidence it might help to improve certain mental abilities.

There’s even a game – Mindball – that you can play purely with the power of thought. All in the Mind tries it out!

Link to BBC All in the Mind website with audio.

Music of the Hemispheres

There’s a great piece in The New York Times on Prof Daniel Levitin and the rapidly developing research field tackling the cognitive neuroscience of music.

We’ve covered material related to Levitin’s recently-released book This is Your Brain on Music (ISBN 0525949690) before, but the NYT article goes into a little more detail into some of the scientific findings than previous articles.

Letivin is an ex-rock producer who eventually became disillusioned with the music industry but maintained his love of music through his work as a neuropsychologist.

For his first experiment he came up with an elegant concept: He stopped people on the street and asked them to sing, entirely from memory, one of their favorite hit songs. The results were astonishingly accurate. Most people could hit the tempo of the original song within a four-percent margin of error, and two-thirds sang within a semitone of the original pitch, a level of accuracy that wouldn’t embarrass a pro.

“When you played the recording of them singing alongside the actual recording of the original song, it sounded like they were singing along,” Dr. Levitin said.

It was a remarkable feat. Most memories degrade and distort with time; why would pop music memories be so sharply encoded? Perhaps because music triggers the reward centers in our brains. In a study published last year [pdf] Dr. Levitin and group of neuroscientists mapped out precisely how.

Observing 13 subjects who listened to classical music while in an M.R.I. machine, the scientists found a cascade of brain-chemical activity. First the music triggered the forebrain, as it analyzed the structure and meaning of the tune. Then the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area activated to release dopamine, a chemical that triggers the brain’s sense of reward.

His book got a glowing review from Salon, although I’ve yet to find any reviews in the academic literature.

However, Levitin’s website has a huge amount of information on it, including the audio of interviews he’s done and the full text of all his papers, so is well worth a visit if you’re interested in checking out the area.

UPDATE: Dr Levitin emailed to say the book has indeed been reviewed in the academic literature. A review that appeared in the journal Cerebrum is available online as a pdf. Enjoy!

Link to NYT article ‘Music of the Hemispheres’ (via BrainWaves).
Link to Salon review of ‘This is Your Brain on Music’.
Link to Levitin’s website.

Brain Surgery – Live on the Wireless!

The always excellent ABC Radio All in the Mind has just had a particularly compelling edition where they covered a neurosurgery operation to fix a particularly dangerous type of problem – an arteriovenous malformation or AVM – in a young woman named Kia.

An AVM is a tangle of veins and arteries meaning that the usually separate arterial (oxygen rich) and venous (oxygen depleted) blood can become mixed or doesn’t flow properly.

The problem is usually present from birth owing to a problem in development, and when intact, might not cause any noticeable symptoms.

However, AVMs are known to be fragile and there is a high risk that the AVM might bleed or cause an aneurysm – potentially causing death or serious brain injury.

Therefore, if treatable (and some are so big, complex or fragile that they can’t be treated) surgeons will often opt to risk an operation to remove the AVM to prevent any catastrophes in the future.

You’d think that radio wouldn’t be a good medium to cover a surgical procedure but the programme makes for compelling listening as the neurosurgeon, Professor Jeffrey Rosenfeld, narrates each stage as the operation progresses.

The patient and other staff also describe their hopes and fears, as well as their role in the treatment.

One of the most striking things is the sound of the drill as it cuts into the skull.

Link to AITM on ‘Brain Surgery – Live on the Wireless!’