Richard Dadd and the madness of an artist

Below is an excerpt from the novel Bedlam by Jennifer Higgie which gives a fictional account of the travels and madness of Victorian artist Richard Dadd.

Dadd was eventually confined to Bethlem Hospital and subsequently to the then ‘Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane’ (now Broadmoor Hospital) for the murder of his father and attempted murder of a tourist while being tormented by paranoid delusions.

Dadd was allowed to keep painting in hospital and produced some of the most important artwork of the era.

From p144 of the novel:

I find myself gazing at sand and seeing green hills.
I notice hideous faces glaring at me from the faces of sweet young girls.
I the silhouette of a pig in the mild eyes of a camel.
I lie stuck to my bed, covered in sweat as the mattress breathes and groans beneath me.
I have forgotten the names of my own sisters and brothers.
I speak happily, for hours, with my dead mother, whose hand I feel stroke mine, and curse the breath of my father, who is revealed to me as an impostor of the highest order.
I walk in sunlight and feel the hot glare of the moon burn my skin.
I see scorpions the size of men haunting ruins.
I crash into walls I do not see.
I pluck poisonous flowers and dream I boil them for tea.
I spend hours polishing teaspoons I do not need.
I long to dilute my colours with mirages, to make them hot and trembling.

Link to details of Higgie’s Bedlam.
Link to Wikipedia page on Dadd.

Lost in space

What do you do with a psychotic astronaut? If you’re not sure, the Houston Chronicle notes that you can look it up in NASA’s manual for dealing with psychiatric emergencies in space.

Despite being surrounded by billions of dollars of high technology, the procedure is pragmatic and definitely low-tech:

The guidelines were developed to respond to an attempted suicide or severe anxiety, paranoia or hysteria aboard the international space station. Astronauts are instructed to bind the stricken flier’s wrists and ankles with duct tape, restrain the torso with bungee cords and administer strong tranquilizers.

There’s actually a project, named Human Interactions in Space, which specifically studies the psychological impact of space travel, headed up by psychiatrist Dr Nick Kansas.

There are further details of NASA’s policies for psychiatric emergencies in the Houston Chronicle article.

Link to story in Houston Chronicle.

Famous for amnesia and the history of memory

NPR Radio has a fantastic programme that charts the story of famous amnesic patient HM and how research into his impairments have revolutionised the way we understand human memory.

HM became densely amnesic after an operation removed the hippocampus on each side of the brain to treat his otherwise untreatable epilepsy.

Epilepsy can often be triggered by disturbances in the hippocampus, and removing the site of this disturbance is one way of treating life-threatening seizures.

We know now, largely because of HM, that removing one hippocampus has relatively small impact on memory, while removing both causes a profound antereograde amnesia.

This means HM cannot remember new information, meaning that he has relatively normal memory for the time before his operation, but can remember virtually nothing since.

This was one of the first and only times the operation to remove both hippocampi was conducted because of the effects that were discovered.

However, because the removal of the brain areas was done surgically, it allowed a very precise understanding of how the removed areas might contribute to normal memory processes.

A discipline called cognitive neuropsychology studies damage to the brain to work out normal function, by matching up which areas are damaged by what patients can no longer do.

Using these methods, HM has provided a huge insight into the neuropsychology of memory.

The first study on HM was published way back in 1957 [pdf] by brain surgeon William Scoville and neuropsychologist Brenda Milner.

He has been anonymous and kept from the public eye, but his family has now agreed to release audio tapes of him made in the 1990s.

The NPR programme is their first broadcast.

HM is still alive and has been the focus of studies on the neuropsychology of memory until the last paper [pdf] in 2002 although now has reportedly ‘retired’ from research.

Link to ‘H.M.’s Brain and the History of Memory’ with audio.
pdf of first paper on HM by Scoville and Milner.
pdf of 2002 review on HM’s contribution to memory research.

Eyes-closed fantasies

An excerpt from the entry for the psychedelic drug 4-TASB from the book Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved (otherwise known as PiHKAL).

The drug was one of many developed by chemist and psychedelics researcher Alexander Shulgin. As with hundreds of other compounds, the chemical structure and effects of this new drug are described in the book.

From the experiences of testing this compound, it seems 4-TASB was not a success:

Music was lovely during the experiment, but pictures were not particularly exciting. I had feelings that my nerve-endings were raw and active. There was water retention. There was heartbeat wrongness, and respiration wrongness. During my attempts to sleep, my eyes-closed fantasies became extremely negative. I could actually feel the continuous electrical impulses travelling between my nerve endings. Disturbing. There was continuous erotic arousability, and this seemed to be part of the same over-sensitivity of the nervous system; orgasm didn’t soothe or smooth out the feeling of vulnerability. This is a very threatening material. DO NOT REPEAT.

Link to 4-TASB entry from online PiHKAL.

Subliminal messages on slot machines

CBC News is reporting that Ontario’s gambling regulator has removed almost 90 slot machines from use because they appear to show subliminal jackpot displays every time the game is played.

Information displayed very quickly, or within a sequence of other images (known as ‘masking’ in psychology), can be found to have a detectable effect on the brain and measurable mental processes, despite the fact that people may be unaware of seeing them.

For example, one study found that images of fearful faces displayed at a rapid rate changed activity in a brain area called the amygdala, despite the participants having no conscious experience of seeing the fearful expressions.

It is not clear how much this sort of thing actually changes anyone’s behaviour, although the practice is outlawed in many countries as being dishonest.

Link to CBC News story on subliminal slot machines with video segment (via BB).

The benefits of inheriting despair

The LA Times has an interesting article on evolutionary theories of depression that also discusses how these might lead to new and improved treatments for the condition.

The fact that mental illness is both widespread and disabling is a puzzle in evolutionary terms, if you believe that a vulnerability to psychological disorder is strongly inherited.

Indeed, the evidence suggests that there is a significant inherited component in mental illness, although the extent of this influence is debated.

If this is the case, the question arises ‘why do we still have mental illness if inheriting the risk for it makes you much less likely to reproduce?’. Surely it should have been ‘bred out’ of the population?

Some use this as an argument to suggest that the role of genetics in mental illness has been overstated, and that the majority of risk arises from environmental factors, particularly those that cause stress and trauma.

Others suggest that the same inherited attributes that increase risk for mental illness can be beneficial when they don’t result in serious impairment.

For example, research has suggested that people who are at high risk for schizophrenia, or have slight or fleeting psychosis-like thoughts, are more likely to be creative or original thinkers [pdf].

More recently, it was reported that a gene called DARPP-32 increases risk for schizophrenia as well as being linked to the more efficient use of a key brain circuit in the frontal lobe.

This might explain why genes that increase these tendencies are still in the gene pool, and only when too many of these traits are inherited is the person very likely to suffer ill-effects when confronted by severe life stresses.

A similar theory was put forward by the late Dr David Horrobin is his book The Madness of Adam and Eve: How Schizophrenia Shaped Humanity (ISBN 0593046498).

As an aside, Horrobin was famously the subject of a controversy after a critical obituary was published in the British Medical Journal, leading to an angry reaction and the journal publishing an apology.

The LA Times article is a great overview of evolutionary theories of depression that might help answer questions about why someone might inherit a tendency to be depressed.

If this tendency is understood as an exaggerated form of something that might be beneficial in small doses, it may give clues to new treatments, and the article looks at what treatments researchers are considering with this in mind.

Link to LA Times article ‘The mind, as it evolves’.

Encephalon 17 ahoy

The latest edition of psychology and neuroscience writing carnival Encephalon has been been published, this time ably hosted by Pure Pedantry.

A couple of my favourites from this curiously pirate-themed edition include a demonstration of an effect known as ‘boundary extension’ and an article on the sometimes paralysing effects of choice.

Head on over if you want more of the latest articles from the online mind and brain community.

Link to Encephalon 17.

Real life earthquake simulator to treat disaster trauma

As an intriguing follow-up to our recent story on using virtual reality to treat battle-related PTSD, BBC News is reporting on a relatively low-tech solution for earthquake-related PTSD – a house on a shaking platform.

The research, led by Dr Metin Basoglu, has just been published in the journal Psychological Medicine and reports that the simulator was used to effectively treat earthquake survivors in Turkey.

One component of psychology treatments for anxiety disorders, including PTSD, involves safely introducing the person to the anxiety-inducing situation in a gradual and controlled manner so they can habituate to the stress.

This is obviously easier for trauma caused by dogs or cars than it is for earthquakes or war, and so researchers are starting to develop novel ways of simulating these conditions.

This is an excerpt from the research paper on how the simulator was used:

The earthquake simulator consisted of a small furnished house based on a shake table that could simulate earthquake tremors on nine intensity levels. The participants controlled the tremors (using a mobile control switch), stopping or starting it whenever they wanted to, and increasing the intensity whenever they felt ready for it. If the participant’s anxiety related more to the tremors, they were asked to focus on this sensation and the sight and sound of the moving objects. If their distress related more to re-experiencing trauma events, they were encouraged to talk about these events to facilitate imaginal exposure. The session was terminated when the survivors felt in complete control of their distress or fear.

What’s great about Basoglu’s method is that it could be easily and cheaply used in areas hit by earthquakes, even if the affected doesn’t have access to high technology.

It is even conceivable that hand operated version of the ‘earthquake’ simulator could be built.

Link to BBC News story “Simulator ‘conquers quake stress'”.
Link to summary of research paper on PubMed.

Autism across cultures

NPR has recently broadcast a short interview with anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker who discusses how autism is understood in different cultures and across the world.

Grinker has written a book called Unstrange Minds (ISBN 0465027636) which was inspired both by his daughter, who has been diagnosed with autism, and his travels across the world to discover how people with autism exist within different cultures.

The book’s website is well worth visiting as it has a number of excerpts as well as some additional material and photos.

Link to NPR page with Grinker interview audio.
Link to website of Unstrange Minds.

Diagnosing and treating childhood

Psychiatrist Edward Hume has created uploaded a spoof paper on the the ‘etiology and treatment of childhood’, satirising the growing enthusiasm for diagnosing children with psychiatric disorders.

The paper was written by Jordan Smoller and published in the humorous book called Oral sadism and the vegetarian personality (ISBN 0345347005).

Childhood is a syndrome which has only recently begun to receive serious attention from clinicians. The syndrome itself, however, is not at all recent. As early as the 8th century, the Persian historian Kidnom made references to “short, noisy creatures,” who may well have been what we now call “children.” The treatment of children, however, was unknown until this century, when so-called “child psychologists” and “child psychiatrists” became common. Despite this history of clinical neglect, it has been estimated that well over half of all Americans alive today have experienced childhood directly (Suess, 1983). In fact, the actual numbers are probably much higher, since these data are based on self-reports which may be subject to social desirability biases and retrospective distortion.

Link to spoof paper (thanks for the correction Blar!).

UK’s Ministry of Defence researching parapsychology

According to BBC News news story, a Ministry of Defence report shows that the UK government agency carried out tests to see if participants could demonstrate the psychic ability of ‘remote viewing‘ in 2002.

The document was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and reportedly outlines experiments to test whether participants could ‘see’ information hidden in envelopes.

During the study, commercial researchers were contracted at a cost of £18,000 to test them to see if psychic ability existed and could be used for defence purposes.

Some 28% of those tested managed a close guess at the contents of the envelopes, which included pictures of a knife, Mother Teresa and an “Asian individual”.

The MOD joins a long list of government agencies from around the world who have reportedly investigated psychic abilities.

The most famous supposedly being the CIA’s remote viewing experiments from the 1970s.

Link to BBC News story ‘MoD defends psychic powers study’.
Link to more from The Scotsman.

The cutting edge of Parkinson’s Disease

BBC Radio 4’s medical programme Case Notes recently had a special on Parkinson’s Disease which explored the condition and the work on the latest treatments – including brain surgery and cell transplants.

Parkinson’s Disease is heavily linked to the loss of dopamine neurons in the nigrostriatal pathway in the brain (there’s a good diagram here).

This causes movements difficulties (including slowness of movement, stiffness and tremor) as well as cognitive difficulties which can impair reasoning, concentration and memory.

Because the disorder is linked to the loss of cells in quite a focused area of the brain, it is been the subject of much interest by medical researchers wanting to ‘replace’ these cells by implanting stem cells into affected brain area with the hope that they’ll turn into new dopamine neurons.

So far, the trials have shown mixed results, although the research is still in the early stages.

Because of the use of stem cells, Parkinson’s Disease has become a political battleground, especially in the USA, where stem cell research is considered much more controversial than in other parts of the world.

Link to Case Notes on Parkinson’s Disease (with audio).
Link to NIH information on Parkinson’s Disease.

2007-02-23 Spike activity

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

Schizophrenia could be ‘evolution of the intellect’ according to genetic study looking at how traits linked to the disorder may be beneficial in some instances.

“Why do men ignore nagging wives? It’s all science”. The sexism is optional it seems.

Cognitive Daily looks at research suggesting that video gamers make better surgeons.

In light of the case of a 4-year-old American girl who died from prescribed psychiatric medication, the Boston Globe questions the trend for diagnosing infants with bipolar disorder.

There’s been some fantastic neuropsychology videos on Channel N recently.

BBC News reports on a recent discovery of new brain cell growth in adult human brains.

The 2007 USA Memory Championships kick off in a couple of weeks.

SciAm reports that the ‘largest ever’ autism study identifies two promising genetic factors in the condition.

Developing Intelligence looks at how children develop prospective memory – the memory for remembering to do things in the future.

The neurochemistry of orgasm

Below is an excerpt from a review, published in this week’s Nature, of the book The Science of Orgasm (ISBN 9780801884900).

The review is by Prof Tim Spector whose work we’ve featured previously on Mind Hacks.

Spector published the results of a study in 2005 on the genetics of female orgasm which generated a range of critical commentaries.

His review tackles a new book which aims to cover the latest research on orgasm from a number of perspectives, but also gives a glimpse into the neuroscience of orgasm itself.

In my view, the best part of the book is the neurochemistry of the orgasm. Studies of paraplegic women clearly show the importance in female orgasm of multiple complex neural pathways such as the vagus nerve.

Functional brain imaging is an exciting area for study and (despite poor-quality pictures) the authors present the latest findings of multiple areas of brain activity during orgasm — which make any simplistic dopamine (stimulatory) – serotonin (inhibitory) mode of action unlikely.

They postulate a central role for areas such as the cingulate cortex, which is also where pain is perceived — linking pain and orgasm as related sensory processes. Orgasms apparently alter pain perception and increase pain thresholds, and this link may explain bizarre reports of women having orgasms during childbirth.

However, just when I was ready for the truth — a clear definition of orgasm and where it arises in the brain — I was told it was not a reflex, only a perception of neural activity and, even worse, probably a form of diffuse consciousness in an as yet undiscovered fifth dimension.

After such a careful, slow build-up of teasing and tantalizing data, I was definitely left frustrated — and wanting more.

Link to Spectors’ review (not freely available unfortunately).
Link to info on the book from the publishers.

A fruit that affects dopamine neurons

The fruit pictured on the right is called a soursop – a reportedly delicious fruit from the French West Indies that contains very small amounts of a substance that kills dopamine neurons.

Two research studies have looked at the substance – annonacin – and found it to kill off dopamine neurons in test tube trials.

Annonacin is only present in small quantities so occasionally eating soursop should be safe.

However, it is thought that the high rates of treatment resistant Parkinson’s disease in the French West Indies may be linked to high levels of soursop consumption.

Parkinson’s disease is caused by the death of dopamine neurons in the nigrostriatal pathway of the brain.

Link to neurotoxicity study on soursop.
Link to study on link with Parkinson’s disease.