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.

Dancing in the waiting room

I found this on the wall of a Rehab Unit in a London hospital this morning.

Dancing in the Waiting Room
by Angus Macmillan

All our living
is in waiting.
In these moments
we find our myriad selves
anxious, hopeful, trembling,
wishful, fearful, impatient.
All our dancing shadows
are there
flitting in the half light
of unreason
crowding together
in fevers of movement
never still, never one.

Then a voice says ‘Next’
and a new dance

I looked up the author on the net, and it turns out he’s a Scottish poet who writes in English and Gaelic, and is also a psychologist!

And luckily, there’s some audio of him reading his poems in both English and Gaelic available online.

Link to info and audio from Angus Macmillan.

Coding for cognition

Cognitive scientist Sacha Barber has created a three-part guide to the mechanics and mathematics of neural networks.

If you’re interested in how many artificial intelligence systems work, the guide takes you through the mathematics of neural networks, to the basic of creating your own network in the C programming language.

Even if you’re not a mathematician or programmer, the article is worth a scan so you can get an idea of the level of complexity that is needed for a group of mathematical functions to start displaying ‘cognitive’ properties.

The first thing you’ll notice is how simple the functions are.

With many sorts of neural networks, the difficulty is not in creating the ‘building blocks’ – i.e. the simulated neurons, but in creating a network structure that is useful for solving problems.

While engineers might be interested in creating networks to solve practical problems, neuropsychologists often create networks to simulate encapsulated mental processes, and then damage the networks to simulate brain damage.

This allows the researchers to test out ideas about how cognitive processes might be organised in the brain.

Link to ‘AI : Neural Network for beginners’.

Looking for fireworks

Brain Ethics has a fantastic post by neuroscientist Thomas Rams√∏y who describes the discovery of a worrying brain pathology in a volunteer who took part in one of his brain imaging studies.

A 1999 study found that 18% of healthy participants have brain scans that might suggest some form of abnormality, although only a minority of these abnormalities were considered serious enough to require a referral for further medical assessment.

As more and more healthy people are being scanned for neuroscience studies, researchers are now starting to develop protocols and procedures for dealing with situations where previously undiscovered medical problems are discovered, as described by a 2006 Science article.

In his own work, Rams√∏y notes a useful technique he’s picked up for detecting brain abnormalities and what he discovered in one of his participants.

One of our radiologists told me to “scroll through the brain quickly and look for flashes”, just as a first approximation to detecting brain pathology. So I’ve done that ever since. Just that simple trick has actually been helpful, this case being the prime example. Above, you can see how the lesions pop out as white sparks in the brain.

For my subject, it means that we have detected a stenosis in both arteries supporting the brain. If untreated, they would eventually have blocked the bloodstream to the brain and caused widespread neuronal damage, maybe even be life threatening.

It’s rare researchers talk about instances when this happens, so Rams√∏y’s post is an enlightening look into a worrying situation that thankfully turned out well in the end.

Link to Brain Ethics article ‘Scroll through and look for fireworks’.
Link to Science article ‘Incidental Findings in Brain Imaging Research’.

The Stuff of Thought

The Toronto Star has a preview of Steven Pinker’s forthcoming book ‘The Stuff of Thought’ which apparently tackles language (no surprise there) but this time examines the multiple meanings in language and how and why we use metaphor.

The book isn’t slated to appear until late 2007, although it seems he’ll be doing some lectures based on the book throughout the coming year.

The article outlines some of the themes in his forthcoming work:

“The Harvard psychologist classes [his example of] the salt request as an example of indirect speech, a category that also includes euphemisms and innuendo. Two other key themes for Wednesday’s talk are the ubiquity of metaphor in everyday language and swearing and what it says about human emotion.

For Pinker all three categories of language provide windows on human nature, and analyzing them can reveal what people are thinking and feeling. The approach builds upon his earlier thesis that human nature has distinct and universal properties, some of which are innate ‚Äì determined at birth by genes rather than shaped primarily by environment.”

I had the pleasure of seeing of seeing one of Steven Pinker’s talks once, and even if you don’t buy his hard-nosed nativist view of cognition (that suggests that the fundamentals of our mental processes are inherited and selected for by evolution), he’s still greatly entertaining and thought-provoking.

Link to article ‘Of thought and metaphor’.