Statistical self-defence over at

Readers of might be interested to read my review of the last chapter of Darrell Huff’s classic How To Lie With Statistics, over at my personal blog The last chapter gives Huff’s rules of thumb for interrogating statistics and I’ve provided some slim commentary on the workings of science, reason and whatnot. See you there!

Everywhere like such as

I just recorded an interview on psychology and the internet for ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind. Natasha Mitchell was completely charming, the questions informed and on target, but as for me, Miss South Carolina, I know how you feel.

Also, I’m off to the British Association of Cognitive Neuroscience conference for a couple of days, as I’ve kindly been asked to speak in the cognitive neuropsychiatry symposium in honour of the late great Prof Hadyn Ellis. Apologies if the updates are a bit patchy. Not sure how internet access is going to work out.

Brain scan entrepreneurs

The New York Times has an article on the burgeoning business of commercial fMRI brain scan services – that offer to do everything from detecting lies to managing pain.

fMRI is a type of scan that can map levels of oxygen-rich blood across the brain. As brain areas need more oxygen the harder they work, fMRI can produce a map of inferred activity.

fMRI is a relatively new technology. Although its now the most popular technique for tracking brain function, it only became widespread in the mid to late-1990s.

We’ve just got to the stage where commercial companies are beginning to sell fMRI-based services.

So far, the offerings are almost entirely based on experimental results that most scientists find interesting but preliminary, and to different degrees, the glitz of neuroscience, and impressive but scientifically meaningless publicity stunts.

This isn’t really a problem with the technology itself. It’s common for companies to sell their product while its still in development, but its worth bearing in mind when you hear the more outrageous claims for what it can do.

You might think that this business is so new and specialised as to be a target for easy-money investors, but it’s surprisingly cut-throat.

For example, VSM MedTech, makers of MEG brain scanners, seem to be running as a support only company after a serious nose dive.

However, this still leaves two other companies who can currently manufacture and install these multi-million pound devices.

The NYT article surveys the sorts of commercial brain scan services currently being offered, and has a critical commentary on some of the companies’ claims.

Link to NYT article ‘Mind Over Matter, With a Machine‚Äôs Help’ (via BB).

Encephalon 30 sends off Neurofuture

The 30th edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just hit the net – as the last ever post on brain blog Neurofuture.

Luckily, Neurofuture author Sandra is still going to be writing for Omni Brain, PsychCentral and print publications, so it’s less a departure and more a regrouping.

A couple of my favourites from this month’s edition include a post on the how hemispheres of the brain can be specialised for certain tasks, and a video discussion on ‘Is Consciousness Definable?’.

There’s more at the link below.

Link to Encephalon 30.

Girls with autism

The New York Times has an in-depth article on autism in girls, a topic largely neglected in the research literature owing to the fact that males are much more likely to be diagnosed with the condition.

It’s only recently that researchers have started to look in earnest into differences between boys and girls with autism.

Generally, the studies find that there are no major differences in the core aspects of autism between the sexes. But as a diagnosis of autism relies on these aspects, by definition, they’re going to be largely the same.

Studies looking at brain structure, cognitive abilities, and other types of everyday problem and emotional disturbance, have found some key differences though, and it seems they sometimes affect girls particularly negatively:

No doubt part of the problem for autistic girls is the rising level of social interaction that comes in middle school. Girls’ networks become intricate and demanding, and friendships often hinge on attention to feelings and lots of rapid and nuanced communication ‚Äî in person, by cellphone or Instant Messenger. No matter how much they want to connect, autistic girls are not good at empathy and conversation, and they find themselves locked out, seemingly even more than boys do. At the University of Texas Medical School, Katherine Loveland, a psychiatry professor, recently compared 700 autistic boys and 300 autistic girls and found that while the boys’ “abnormal communications” decreased as I.Q. scores rose, the girls’ did not. “Girls will have more trouble with social networks if they’re having greater difficulty with communication and language,” she says.

The article is a well-researched tour through some of the latest research on girls with autism, but also has some wonderful illustrations of how girls with autism experience the complex world of social interaction.

Link to NYT article ‘What Autistic Girls Are Made Of’.

Addicted to food?

Scientific American has an interview with neurobiology of addiction tsar Dr Nora Volkow discussing whether we can understand overeating as a form of addiction.

Volkow describes how the reward system, of which the dopamine rich mesolimbic pathway is particularly important, is involved in signalling desire and predicting pleasure.

Needless to say, it plays a key role in addiction. But as it’s involved whenever we do anything pleasurable, from taking drugs to eating to laughing, it’s also central to many non-pathological situations.

In fact, we presume it kicks in when we desire anything pleasurable, to any degree.

So it may be crucial to understand what happens in this pathway in people who have difficulties with over-eating.

Volkow mentions that people with obesity tend to have fewer D2 dopamine receptors in the striatum, perhaps suggesting more food is needed for the same pleasurable response, which could promote over-eating.

A similar thing has been found in addicted drug users, which raises the question, is obesity a ‘food addiction’?

Although not without controversy, drug addiction is usually described as having three main components (the ‘three Cs’): Compulsive use (wanting to do it again), loss of Control (feeling you can’t stop yourself), and continued use despite adverse Consequences (even when you know it’s damaging).

The difficulty is, normal eating fulfils all three criteria. We’re compelled to eat, stopping ourselves is incredibly difficult, and we all continue to eat things we know are bad for us, even when our health suffers.

Notably, Volkow is careful not to describe obesity as an addiction in the interview, although the magazine is quite happy to label it a ‘food addiction’.

Increasingly, we’re finding that problems labelled as separate in the diagnostic manuals can actually have some core features in common.

In this case, similar differences in the reward system in addiction and obesity seem to be important.

However, we always have to beware of over-simplifying complex problems.

Obesity, like high-blood pressure, is simple to define, but is caused by many different things acting together.

Highlighting overlaps can be incredibly powerful, but inappropriately lumping problems together often means missing the other factors which may be equally important.

Scientists are usually pretty good at this, typically discussing the similarities or talking about shared factors, but it’s worth looking out for when the message gets simplified when retold in the press.

Link to SciAm interview on obesity and addiction.