Encephalon 21 arrives

The 21st edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just been published on neurobiology of aging blog Ouroboros.

A couple of my favourites include Dr Deborah Serani discussing a to-be-released psychotherapy game for the Nintendo DS, and Neurophilosopher with a wonderfully in-depth article on Dostoyevsky’s epilepsy.

There are many more fantastic articles in this edition, and it looks beautiful. Head on over.

Link to Encephalon 21.

Health Report on ADHD and child eating disorders

ABC Radio National’s Health Report had a recent programme in two halves, one looking at how eating disorders manifest in childhood and adolescence and another on girls diagnosed with ADHD.

Unexpectedly, the guest for the second section, psychologist Prof Steve Hinshaw, is asked about his work on stigma and mental illness and has some interesting comments to make about how scientific models of mental illness can influence how stigmatised someone feels after being given a particular diagnosis.

As well as this interesting detour, the programme examines how ADHD and eating disorders can start, and are treated, in childhood.

mp3 of whole programme.
Link to transcript of eating disorders section.
Link to ADHD in girls section.

Wear your brain on your sleeve

Shirt and t-shirt site Hide Your Arms has just reviewed a fantastic t-shirt that has a wonderful exploded brain picture on the front and a recent neuroscience news story on the back.

The shirt is from a company called T-Post who send subscribers a new t-shirt every six weeks based on a recent news story.

This t-shirt is based on the findings of a research study that found that activation in an area of the right temporal lobe when viewing others’ actions was associated with self-reported altruism.

Link to Hide Your Arms shirt review.
Link to T-Post.

SciAmMind on body image and coma-like states

A new edition of Scientific American Mind has arrived with two freely available articles online: one on the distortion of body image in eating disorders and the other on whether brain scans could be a communication channel for people in coma-like vegetative states.

Perhaps the key feature of eating disorders such as anorexia is not just that the person wants to be thin, but that they have a disturbance in their body image so they think they are fat, even when dangerously undernourished.

The SciAmMind article looks at research which attempts to understand how and why body image becomes disturbed and how this can contribute to disorded eating patterns.

This second article discusses the implications of a study [pdf] published recently by Adrian Owen and colleagues suggesting that some patients in a persistent vegetative state or PVS might actually have conscious awareness which they can’t outwardly express (see previously on Mind Hacks).

The first step is getting a general understanding of the patient’s state of mind. Clinicians divide disorders of consciousness into three categories: coma, in which a patient is neither awake nor responsive; vegetative, in which a patient is awake but unresponsive; and minimally conscious, in which a patient is awake and responds to stimuli but has limited capacity to take willful actions. Typically doctors make these categorizations by observing a patient at the bedside. By this method alone, a patient thought to be vegetative could actually be aware.

“It’s really a conundrum. The way that consciousness is typically measured is by basically asking somebody to tell you that they are conscious,” Owen says. “So if someone wasn’t unconscious but couldn’t respond and tell you that, they would be classed as unconscious.” In Owen’s team’s case study, reported in the September 8, 2006, issue of the journal Science, the researchers asked the vegetative patient to imagine herself doing various tasks, including walking through the rooms of her home, while they scanned her brain using fMRI. The resulting images showed that her response matched that of healthy test subjects – she understood the commands and intentionally decided to comply.

Other articles available in the print edition or to subscribers tackle food addiction, brain development in adolescence, perceptual integration, the psychology of stalkers, lithium in the treatment of neurological disorders, pain disorders and implanted ‘brain chips’.

Link to contents for April 2007 issue.
Link to article on body image and eating disorder.
Link to article on communicating in vegetative state.

Journalists at risk from electronic smog

The Independent on Sunday has the dubious honour of publishing one of the worst pieces of science journalism I have ever read on today’s front cover – claiming to ‘reveal’ that children are at risk from Wi-Fi computer networks because of their developing nervous systems.

The headlines include “Children at risk from electronic smog”, “Revealed: radiation threat from new wireless computer networks”, “Fears rise over health threat to children from wifi networks” and “Danger on the airwaves”.

This is despite the fact that not one single study has found a health risk for wifi networks.

In fact, a recent study that measured wifi emissions found “In all cases, the measured Wi-Fi signal levels were very far below international exposure limits (IEEE C95.1-2005 and ICNIRP) and in nearly all cases far below other RF signals in the same environments”.

Personally, I’m more concerned about the smog that comes from whatever they’ve been smoking at the Independent on Sunday.

Link to abstract of recent study on wifi exposure.

For one night only: Art from the inside

Being at St Clements is a one night only art event being held in London on the night of Tuesday 24th April to showcase a project combining the talents of dedicated artists and patients from a psychiatric hospital.

The event will present some brand new multimedia works, including a never before seen video and animation projects, sound installations and an exhibition of digital prints.

It will also include a live show to keep you entertained throughout the evening.

The event is being held at the SPACE Gallery, 129-131 Mare Street, London, E8 3RH. 6 – 9pm (Live show @ 7pm).

Link to details of event (thanks Tenyen!).

The defeat of sleep

BBC Radio 4 recently broadcast a documentary on the effects of the new generation of anti-sleep drugs on health and society.

Drugs, such as modafinil and adrafinil, seem to remove the need for sleep and promote alertness while having minimal side-effects in most users.

Unlike older drugs which prevent sleep, such as amphetamine, these drugs typically don’t feel pleasurable and have few other effects, meaning they are less likely to be used recreationally or lead to compulsive use.

Originally used to treat sleep disorders, there is now a large grey market for these compounds, as people use them to extend their work or play time.

The BBC documentary tackles the possible effects on society of being able to easily manipulate and delete the need for sleep at will, as well as investigating the possible mind and brain consequences of not sleeping for long periods.

Link to The Defeat of Sleep webpage with embedded audio.

A quick snack before the main meal?

I returned from lunch and was surprised to find an email from The Mind Lab giving details of the ‘chocolate vs kissing’ study we reported on earlier and dismissed as rubbish. So, is it junk?

Well, it certainly wouldn’t get published in an academic journal, but it’s certainly not as far-fetched as it seemed from the press releases.

Notably, it’s described as a ‘pilot study’ which is often a test-run study done by scientists to try out methods, equipment, ideas or get some initial data.

The email from Dr David Lewis noted that it was for a larger piece of research investigating the role of certain food stuffs in enhancing vigilance in groups whose performance often seriously, and sometimes fatally, affected by fatigue – such as long distance drivers and combat troops.

After reading the report, the premise still seems a bit daft (melting chocolate vs kissing? why?), the number of participants low (only 12), the methods not as robust as they could be and the data presented as summary graphs only with no statistical analysis.

But, for the first time ever for a ‘PR study’, I was provided details of the study when they were requested, so at least I can see that for myself.

Whether it’s healthy that research labs should be ‘selling’ pilot studies (which can’t really be used to draw any firm conclusions) for the advertising industry to promote as science is another matter.

The report is available from The Mind Lab on request.

Link to The Mind Lab.

Psychology in top ten most satisfying jobs in America

Yahoo! News is reporting that psychology has been ranked the 9th most satisifying job in America.

The ranking is from a project from the University of Chicago called the ‘General Social Survey’ which monitors changes in attitude and behaviour across various populations.

I can’t actually find the original research online, but any pointers would be gratefully received.

For a list of the most and least satisifying jobs, follow the link below.

Link to Yahoo! News story ‘Survey Reveals Most Satisfying Jobs’.

2007-04-20 Spike activity

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

Cognitive Daily investigates the curious psychological effects of self-refilling bowls.

The San Francisco Chronicle discusses OCD from the perspective of a popular radio broadcaster and author who experiences the condition.

OmniBrain finds three auditory illusions you can try yourself.

Recent find of an old paper: Using Social Psychology to Motivate Contributions to Online Communities.

Does having more children make you happier? Frontal Cortex investigates.

BBC News looks at pharmaceutical drugs that may boost your brain power.

The Neurophilosopher commemorates the 64th birthday of LSD.

SciAm Mind Matters has a good review of a recent Science paper on visual processing. Scroll down to section entitled ‘Selective Vision‘ (can’t seem to link to individual entries).

Developing Intelligence looks at research on whether children understand time.

Consciousness in the single neuron. A new feature article on Science and Consciousness Review

Madame Fathom investigates part of why smoking may be so attractive despite the health risks: it’s cognitive effects on the brain.

Jeff Hawkins on making AI more human

Independent artificial intelligence researcher Jeff Hawkins has an article in this month’s IEEE Spectrum magazine asking the question ‘why can’t a computer be more like a brain?’.

Hawkins argues that while we hope that machines will be able to simulate human intelligence, we ignore the thing that makes us so – the brain.

He suggests that we need to create artificial intelligence systems that closely match the architecture of the brain to achieve this task.

Hawkins has outlined his arguments, and his own theories of simulated brain architecture, in his book On Intelligence, but if you want a whistle-stop tour of his theories, this article is a great summary.

Link to Hawkin’s article ‘Learn Like a Human’.

I Think With My Brain Now

You wait all day for a neuroscience version of an 80s pop song with scientifically accurate lyrics, and two come along at once.

Hot on the heels of the occipital lobe remix of Britney’s Baby One more Time… comes a re-working of Tiffany’s I Think We’re Alone Now.

This time, some medical students who have obviously spent a little too much time in lab class, bring you the video extravanganza that is I Think With My Brain Now.

The lyrics are very special.

Link to YouTube video of ‘I Think with My Brain Now’.

NewSci on gender identity and the effects of media

This week’s New Scientist has two articles of interest to mind and brain enthusiasts: one on gender identity disorder in adolescents, and the other on the psychological effects of modern media.

Unfortunately, neither are open access articles, so you’ll need to track down a copy at the newsagent or library if you want to have a look.

The article on gender identity disorder (GID) in children is particularly interesting, as transexuals often report that they felt from an early age that they were the ‘wrong sex’.

Gender identity disorder is where a person feels themselves to be male when they are bodily male, or male when they are bodily female.

There is some evidence that the ‘felt sex’ is reflected in brain structure, with male-to-female transsexuals having structures that are more female-like.

In adult life, some people choose to have hormone treatment and gender reassignment surgery to change from male to female or female to male.

Some clinics are now treating children as young as 12, more often with hormone therapy, causing significant controversy.

It’s probably worth noting that not everyone in the transgender community appreciates that their wish to be another sex is classified as a disorder in itself, even if they do accept it can create a significant amount of psychological distress.

Furthermore, some people don’t see gender as a one-or-the-other classification and might consider themselves to be neither or both.

The article on the psychological effects of media examines how television and computer games might be altering our cognitive abilities.

In a nutshell, the research suggests that increased television viewing correlates with attentional problems, but computer game players tend to have better attentional skills.

The article also gives advice for parents on managing TV viewing to reduce the negative impact on children.

As a complete aside, the ‘leet among you might be interested to know that this week’s edition of NewSci is issue number 2600. j0!

Link to contents for this week’s NewSci.

Brain surgery robot

Researchers from the University of Calgary have released the first version of NeuroArm – a surgeon-controlled robot for conducting brain surgery.

The key feature of the robot is that it is designed to work inside an MRI brain scanner.

MRI scans currently provide the most accurate structural image of the brain and therefore provide important information for planning operations.

Neurosurgeons also use MRI scans completed before surgery to guide the operation while it’s happening, using a method called stereotactic neurosurgery.

This allows surgical instruments to be guided to an exact spot in the brain by tracking their position in real time, in relation to the 3D scan completed earlier.

One disadvantage is that the brain scan can’t be updated as the brain is altered during the operation.

Being able to scan people while they’re having surgery might sound a simple idea, but MRI scans involve the patient being inside a tube surrounded by hugely powerful magnets, meaning the environment isn’t accommodating to surgeons who need free space and surgical steel.

NeuroArm has been designed to fit inside the tube, and crucially, is not made of any magnetic materials that will affect and be affected by the MRI machine.

This means the surgeon can update the brain scan and complete the operation by controlling the robot remotely.

He or she can do this by using a specially designed surgical workstation that provides a virtual interface to the robot arms, including force feedback on the tools, so the surgeon does not have to give up his ‘surgical touch’.

While the current set-up seems to involve the surgeon being located in the same building as the patient, it is interesting to speculate that, in the future, operations could be directed from hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

The combination of the accurate brain scan and the robot controlled tools also means that the surgeon should be able to attempt microsurgery on very fine brain structures.

You may be surprised to learn that robot-assisted neurosurgery isn’t particularly new and was introduced in the 1980s.

Brown University has a fantastic history of the technology and procedures if you want some background.

Link to Project neuroArm page.
Link to more info on Project neuroArm.
Link to write-up from New Scientist.
Link to history of robotic neurosurgery page.

Neuroimaging Britishness

A recent study comparing British and non-British participants has found some compelling differences in brain structure that may account for differences in national character.

One of the images from the study is available online and is a striking demonstration of how cognitive neuroscience can answer some of the mysteries of cultural diversity.

Link to online copy of brain scan image (thanks Kevin!).

I don’t know who I am

The New York Times has just published an article on dissociative fugue, the poorly understood memory disorder where people seem to forget who they are.

It has many similarities to conversion disorder where people seem to experience a disability (such as paralysis) despite having nothing medically wrong with them.

Both conversion disorder and dissociative fugue are often linked to trauma and they are often thought to arise from emotional difficulties being pushed from consciousness and expressed in other ways – all outside the conscious control of the patient.

Brain imaging research has shown that these sorts of states are likely to be different from people purely ‘faking’ the same thing, but in the clinic, fakers might be still quite hard to detect and extensive neuropsychological testing may be required to do so.

Also, there’s always the worry that there is some medical reason for the problem that just hasn’t been found yet.

Despite these difficulties, some researchers are investigating these conditions, which may provide vital clues to understanding the conscious mind.

The article discusses some famous cases of dissociative fugue and deal with some of the differences with amnesia after brain injury.

It also mentions that a play about the condition, entitled Fugue, is running at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre until April 22.

Link to NYT article ‘When a Brain Forgets Where Memory Is’.
Link to description of dissociative fugue from the Merck Manual.