The military applications of augmented cognition

Wired has an article on the increasing military excitement about augmented cognition (AugCog for short) – technology which reads and responds to cognitive states to allow devices to be used more efficiently.

As has been noted recently, augmented cognition is becoming a hot topic, especially since the millions of dollars investment by US military research agency, DARPA, are starting to result in some finished products.

Indeed, military research centres have been heavily focusing on the technology for the last few years, hoping it can increase the efficiency of military personnel especially when in high-stress situations.

The article includes a cautious comment from Zack Lynch (who you might know via his blog, Brain Waves), and an interesting aside about the possible commercial applications of the research:

Zack Lynch, executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization, says he’s a bit suspicious of the claims because the improvements sound almost too dramatic. But “all in all, there are clearly tremendous advances” being made under the AugCog program, he notes in an e-mail. “(That progress) will bring benefits well outside the defense community,” he says. “All you have to do is imagine what Wall Street will do when they get their hands on technology that can increase trading performance.”

Link to Wired article ‘Pentagon Preps Mind Fields’.
Link to good post on AugCog from Neurophilosopher.

Brain simulation project – the early years

Almost two years ago we covered the launch of the Blue Brain Project an ambitious research programme to create the largest computer simulation of the brain yet created.

Now, Spiegel has an in-depth article looking at how the project is progressing.

The simulation runs on an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer and aims to simulate enough individual neurons to create virtual brain networks.

Brain researchers can use it to reproduce functions from the real organ and test their theories. As they build in new processes, the model grows ever more detailed — a sort of wiki project of the mind. It also offers an important advantage over a natural brain, since it lets researchers monitor each and every (simulated) mental activity in the machine.

But — has there been mental activity?

The newborn “Blue Brain” surprised the designers with its willfulness from the very first day. It had hardly been fed electrical impulses before strange patterns began to appear on the screen with the lightning-like flashes produced by cells that scientists recognize from actual thought processes. Groups of neurons started becoming attuned to one another until they were firing in rhythm. “It happened entirely on its own,” says Markram. “Spontaneously.”

The project has is limitations of course. Single neurons are frighteningly complex, and neuroscientists are still some way from understanding their neurochemistry in sufficient detail to create an adequate working model.

Much computer simulation of the brain (a field known as neuroinformatics) only attempts to simulate approximates of the total complexity, yet has provided some fascinating insights into how mental processes might emerge from the interaction of networks of individual neuron-like units.

Link to Spiegel article ‘Growing a Brain in Switzerland’.
Link to Blue Brain website.

St Anthony’s Fire


The gangrenous and convulsive ergot syndromes that can follow the ingestion of C. purpurea have long been known. Art depicts the classic signs and symptoms of poisoning, such as the strange dancing syndrome shown in woodcuts from the middle ages in Germany and Poland.

The Temptation of St Anthony, a famous painting by the German artist Matthias Gr√ºnewald, depicts people with gangrenous digits, lurid rashes, ulcerations and dystonic postures. At the time of the painting, circa 1500 AD in the middle ages, this condition was known as St Anthony’s Fire.

From Mike Schachter’s chapter in Ergot-derived Drugs: A Cross Therapy Evidence-based Review (ISBN 1853156140).

Albert Hoffman discovered LSD when researching ergot, and LSD is still synthesised from ergot today.

Perfect breast formula = nonsense + sell out

Dr Petra Boyton has spotted another psychologist who seems to have sold out his good name by pushing a Cliff Arnall-like nonsense formula: this time for the ‘perfect breast’.

It all seems to be part of a promotion for a UK Men’s magazine which, in a press release, “reveals the formula for the perfect breast” developed by “University Psychologist Dr. David Holmes”.

I’ve emailed a possible culprit to confirm who it might be and am currently waiting for a response.

Needless to say, the formula itself is complete rubbish. Quite predictably, and rather insultingly, it gets described as ‘science’ in the press release.

There’s more analysis in Petra Boyton’s post if you want the full gory details.

Link to analysis from Petra Boyton.

Sex, drugs and pharmacology

The eDrugSearch blog has noted that Mia Heaston, the current Miss Illinois and one of the 2007 Miss USA hopefuls, is also a pharmaceutical industry representative.

If this link seems a bit too tenuous to be newsworthy, the blog also identifies two of last year’s Miss USA contestants who were drug reps and identified no less than 16 professional cheerleaders who also work as reps for the pharmaceutical industry.

If you’ve ever met a drug rep, you’ll know they tend to be charming, aesthetically pleasing young people with free gifts and selected scientific publications to hand, which of course, suggest that the company’s medication is the best treatment for any number of mental illnesses or assorted disorders.

In a classic 1983 paper Webster and Driskell reported that attractive people are generally thought to be more intelligent and more competent, including when judged on their likely performance on tasks completely unrelated to good looks, such as ‘ability to pilot a plane’.

The use and perceived credibility of information provided by drug reps to doctors has been found to correlate with prescribing.

In other words, even apart from the sex appeal, attractive drug reps are likely to make the marketing information seem more convincing, which in turn leads leads to more doctors using the drugs.

So it’s no surprise that one of the biggest industries on the planet is selectively recruiting some of the most attractive people to promote both their product and their product-supporting research.

No Free Lunch has an extensive list of peer-reviewed research on drug marketing that is an essential antidote and will help you judge their information more effectively.

Link to eDrugSearch blog on Miss USA drug reps (via Furious Seasons).
Link to eDrugSearch blog on cheerleader drug reps.
Link to first page of classic Webster and Driskell paper.

A child psychiatrist in Iraq

BBC News has a brief news story on its front page that relates the experiences of Dr Haidr al-Maliki, a child psychiatrist in Iraq.

From what Dr al-Maliki says, it seems most psychiatrists have left the country and he himself is having to work with severely traumatised children despite not having the proper training.

He has also been shot and threatened, and lives in fear of his life.

About a year ago, during Ramadan, four boys aged about 15 to 20 came into my private clinic, in front of my patient.

They asked “Are you Dr Haidr?” I said yes. And they shot me several times.

One bullet went into my right shoulder, another into my right arm. I am left with nerve injury and muscle atrophy.

Afterwards they told me I couldn’t go to my clinic and that I had to leave the country. They didn’t say why.

Link to BBC News article ‘My Iraq: Child psychiatrist’.

Neither fools nor rogues

A quote from a recent paper by psychiatrist Dr Paul Mullen on the difficulties with diagnostic manuals for mental illness, such as the DSM and ICD.

Mullen argues that the definitions of mental illnesses are designed in an open-minded way to aid diagnosis and stimulate debate but end up trapping us into a narrow definition of mental distress:

Those who create these manuals are neither fools nor rogues. They know that classificatory systems grow and develop. They welcome research, debate, and change. They are often painfully aware of the compromises and hopeful approximations which go to create the final authoritative text.

But this intellectual honesty does not translate into the practices and ideologies which DSM and ICD sustain in the cities of psychiatry and psychology. In today’s field of mental health if you seek research funding or publication, you are forced into the languages of DSM or ICD.

To claim rebates for clinical work or to present expert testimony to courts and tribunals, increasingly, the language of these diagnostic manuals is imposed upon you. To even contribute to the professional debates on nosology you are constrained within the premises which sustain the manuals.

Link to PubMed entry for paper.