Radio in a coma

A new series of the whimsical comedy series Vent, about the thoughts of a man in a coma, has just begun on Radio 4. It’s darkly comic, surreal and occasionally deeply touching.

It flips between the thoughts and memories of Ben, a man in a coma, and the visits of his friends and family to his unconscious body.

It’s by comedy writer Nigel Smith, who was inspired by his own experiences of falling into coma after suffering a demyelinating brain stem lesion.

Link to audio archive of Vent (full archive in ‘All Vent programmes’ link).

Is the internet good for our mental health?

This week’s ABC Radio National All in the Mind discusses how the internet can affect the mind, whether we can be addicted to it, and how it’s being used to delivered effective psychological therapies for a range of mental disorders.

This is the programme I was interviewed for a few weeks ago (through the magic of editing, I sound quite coherent!) where I mainly discuss why I think the concept of ‘internet addiction’ is nonsense.

The other guests are Dr Nick Titov, Prof Isaac Marks and Dr Stephanie Bauer, who discuss their pioneering work on using computer technology to provide treatment for mental illness.

Isaac Marks is one of the founders of behavioural therapy and has been quite involved in adapting some of the techniques so they can be taught by computer or over the internet. In fact, he’s one of the editors of a new book on computer assisted psychotherapy.

One of the things I plug on the programme is an online cognitive behaviour therapy for depression website called MoodGYM.

It’s one of the great success stories of online therapy. It’s been extensively researched, found to be effective and is free and advert free. Highly recommended.

Link to All in the Mind with audio and transcript.

Boyden blogs on augmenting the brain

Ed Boyden, a neuroscientist who specialises in developing technology to enhance the mind and brain, has just started writing a blog on the Technology Review site.

I had the pleasure of giving a joint session with Ed at the SciFoo conference on ‘clinical problems in neuroscience and practical cognitive augmentation’ where I learnt a great deal about techniques to control brain circuits developed by his research team, both for treating neurological and psychiatric disorders, and to boost normal cognitive function.

In his first blog post he outlines some of the principles and promises of human augmentation, and discusses what sort of impact this is likely to have on our ideas of ‘normal’.

If his work is anything to go by, his blog is going to be well worth reading.

Link to Ed Boyden’s blog at Technology Review (via BrainWaves).
Link to Ed Boyden’s homepage.

Purple haze all in my brain

It’s not often one gets one’s bong in the scientific literature, let alone one designed to allow you to smoke weed inside an MRI scanner, but this is exactly what has been achieved in an article published in the journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior.

Most studies on the neuroscience of marijuana have used pills or injections of THC, the main active ingredient, but this is quite different from smoking – both in the way it reaches the brain and because of the fact that burning the plant creates many other chemicals which also get inhaled.

A team from Harvard Medical School are interested in how smoked marijuana affects the brain, but have come to the inevitable conclusion that it’s actually quite hard smoking a joint when you’re lying on your back being brain scanned.

So the research team put their heads together (!), and realised they needed to design a bong – a water pipe for smoking marijuana – safe to use in an MRI scanner.

This isn’t a trivial task. Apart from being free of metal parts that could be affected by the MRI scanner’s strong magnet, the device had to be installed and removed within one booked session and also needed to control the smoke.

As well as allowing the person take hits from the bong, the device also had to capture the smoke that was exhaled. Otherwise, the scanner room would get filled with smoke which could interfere with the equipment and affect any participants who took part in other studies that happened afterwards.

Presumably, after much trial and error, the final device was created with two main parts: the first was a face mask with pipes going to the bong and the ‘exhaust’, the second was the water pipe which was sealed in a box.

One thing you may not be aware of is that the US research agency NIDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, have standard issue spliffs. These are government approved reefers guaranteed to have a measured amount of THC in them.

The bong was designed so these could be attached to the water pipe and lit at the appropriate time so the participant could smoke while being brain scanned.

The researchers tested their creation with a simple brain scan, declared the project a success and published their MRI-safe bong design in the medical journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior.

Link to write-up of study from Wired.
Link to abstract of article.

2007-09-28 Spike activity

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

TechReview has an article on teaching computers to have meaningful conversations. Presumably, teaching humans is going to be the next step.

Neurons avoid talking to themselves by using 19,000 forms of one gene, reports Ars Technia.

How moving your eyes in a specific way can help you solve a complex problem without even realizing it. An interesting study tackled in an article by OmniBrain and one by Mixing Memory

The Boston News discusses how digital technology gives us an almost permanent and sometimes uncomfortably long surrogate memory.

Neurophilosophy covers a case where a stroke causes a woman to feel sounds.

Happiness is a Warm Electrode. Popular Science magazine discusses deep brain stimulation treatment for severe depression.

Cognitive Daily asks why aren’t there more women in science and maths by looking at three key studies.

The New York Times asks why men are happier than women. Language Log asks why the NYT are overselling the statistics.

PsychCentral picks up on what looks like a great event in NYC: Comedians for suicide prevention.

Law professor Elyn Sacks’ new book on her experience of psychosis is reviewed on PsyBlog.

Treatment Online features a fMRI technique that may help the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

Is it rational to do no harm? The Phineas Gage Fan Club investigates.

Ouroboros reports back from a Cambridge conference on effective therapies for postponing and treating the problems of human ageing.

What influences false recall? Developing Intelligence looks at a recent study which picks apart the processes.

Ambushing brain damage

Nature Reviews Neuroscience has a fascinating article on drugs that remain dormant in the brain and only respond when damage occurs.

They’ve been christened pathologically activated therapeutic (PAT) drugs and rely on the fact that brain damage triggers specific chemical changes and drugs can be designed to take advantage of these processes.

For example, memantine is a type of drug that antagonises (blocks) the NMDA receptor which is activated by the neurotransmitter glutamate.

Important, because this receptor is known to be activated to excess in conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Several drugs block this receptor, including ketamine and PCP (‘Angel dust’), but they block the receptor as soon as they arrive.

Memantine is different – it doesn’t do its job unless the receptor has already been activated or ‘opened’ at least once already – making it a ‘non-competative antagonist’ – in other words, it doesn’t compete with the neurotransmitter, it waits until it’s been and gone.

It’s as if you wanted to prevent postmen from delivery their parcels by bricking up each door, but the householders will only open their door to the postmen.

So you hang around, wait for the postman to call, and then get in the doorway and block it. You’re not fighting the postmen while they deliver the letter, you’re avoiding conflict and taking advantage of what they already do.

This gives memantine a very important property. It blocks more receptors the more glutamate is about, or to return to our analogy, it can block more doors when there are more postmen about.

This means the drug ‘lies in wait’. As more NMDA receptors are activated owing to Alzheimer’s disease, the more it steps in to calm the situation down and prevent constant activation which is what is thought to cause the most damage.

The article outlines several other neurochemical processes that allow drugs to seemingly ‘lie in wait’ and only react to damage, rather than affecting the brain regardless of what else is happening.

It’s an interesting, clever and potentially very important twist on drug design that takes advantage of our growing knowledge of how the brain works in both illness and health.

Link to abstract of scientific paper.

APA military mental health special

The latest edition of the American Psychological Association’s monthly magazine has a special feature on military mental health.

The issue is timely, as mental illness in the US military is at an all time high and military mental health services were recently described as “woefully inadequate” by a Pentagon task force.

It’s a bit of a curious mix for a magazine that’s usually heavily academic: it serves as a description of the problem, some motivational material to encourage psychologists to work in military mental health, and a collection of heart-warming tales of success.

There is certainly a great need for psychologists to help treat with psychiatric disorder in veterans, especially now increased government funding has been made available.

However, one wonders whether this issue is also a way of the APA executive mending relationships with the military after the membership voted to condemn the majority of their interrogation practices as torture.

Either way, it’s an interesting peek into the coming wave of mental health care changes that have been initiated by the large numbers of psychiatric casualties coming back from Iraq.

Curiously, the web page of the special feature has an interesting Freudian slip.

It’s been erroneously titled “Serving those we serve”, rather than its presumably correct title, given in the table of contents, of “Serving those who serve”.

Link to special feature on military mental health.

Daniel Kahneman ‘masterclass’ online

Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman recently gave a two day masterclass on his work. It’s now been made available on Edge as transcripts and video clips.

Kahneman has done a huge amount of work on cognitive biases – the quirks of mind that make us deviate from rationality, sometimes in quite surprising and interesting ways.

For example, with his colleague Amos Tversky, he discovered the availability heuristic, which is the process by which we tend to judge an event as more likely to happen in the future the more easily it can be brought to mind.

This is why we vastly overestimate the chances of vividly spectacular but unlikely things like terrorism, but underestimate the mundane but consistently lethal things like driving.

Kahneman has been involved in identifying many of these sorts of biases, and cleverly, applying them to economic decision making to inform economic models of financial behaviour.

As a result, experimental psychology is now a key part of economics to understand how people actually behave as opposed to earlier models which assumed that people will always act more-or-less rationally to maximise their profits.

The Edge ‘masterclass’ is quite a comprehensive guide to his work and covers work which has been influential in many areas of psychology.

Link to Edge Daniel Kahneman ‘masterclass’.

The false progression of Louis Wain

The five pictures are by Victorian artist Louis Wain who painted cats through the whole of his life and continued through periods of intense psychosis.

Almost every article on Wain uses them to demonstrate the progression of schizophrenia but the evidence for them being painted in chronological order is actually quite weak.

The five pictures are from an original series of eight which were collected by Dr Walter Maclay who was interested in the effect of mental illness on art.

However, the pictures were undated and, as Rodney Dale notes in his biography of Wain (Louis Wain: The Man Who Painted Cats; ISBN 1854790986), “with no evidence of the order of their progression, Maclay arranged them in a sequence which clearly demonstrated, he thought, the progressive deterioration of the artist’s mental abilities.”

In fact, his later works are for the most part conventional cat pictures in his normal style, with the occasional ‘psychedelic’ example produced at the same time – where he experimented with what he called ‘wallpaper patterns’.

However, the increasing abstraction over time is likely to be a myth. Wain’s biography again:

Assembling what little factual knowledge we have on Dr Maclay’s paintings, there is clear no justification for regarding them as more than samples of Louis Wain’s art at different times. Wain experimented with patterns and cats, and even quite late in life was still producing conventional cat pictures, perhaps 10 years after his [supposedly] ‘later’ productions which are patterns rather than cats. All of which is to say no more than that the eight paintings were done at different times, which could be said of eight paintings by any artist!

Link to Wikipedia page on Louis Wain.
Link to online gallery of Wain pictures.

Olivers Sacks on music, drugs and emotion

Wired magazine has an interview with Oliver Sacks where he talks about cases from his forthcoming book on the neurology of music, and his own drug-induced experiences of seeing non-existent colours while listening to Monteverdi.

Hume wondered whether one can imagine a color that one has never encountered. One day in 1964, I constructed a sort of pharmacological mountain, and at its peak, I said, “I want to see indigo, now!” As if thrown by a paintbrush, a huge, trembling drop of purest indigo appeared on the wall ‚Äî the color of heaven. For months after that, I kept looking for that color. It was like the lost chord.

Then I went to a concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the first half, they played the Monteverdi Vespers, and I was transported. I felt a river of music 400 years long running from Monteverdi’s mind into mine. Wandering around during the interval, I saw some lapis lazuli snuffboxes that were that same wonderful indigo, and I thought, “Good, the color exists in the external world.” But in the second half I got restless, and when I saw the snuffboxes again, they were no longer indigo ‚Äî they were blue, mauve, pink. I’ve never seen that color since.

The interview is a glimpse of what his next book will contain, and also relates a case of a man with Alzheimer’s and severe memory impairment who can nonetheless take part in an acapella singing group. Seemingly his musical abilities survived his amnesia, not unlike Clive Wearing, who we discussed recently on Mind Hacks.

Link to Wired interview with Oliver Sacks.

Who killed the NYT psychology section?

The New York Times has a record of publishing some cutting edge mind and brain journalism, most of which was collected on their ‘Mental Health and Behavior’ page. However, the page seems to have ground to a halt, removing one of the best psychology resources from the net.

Actually, they’ve not stopped publishing high-quality psychology articles, as the recent piece on the genetics of moral behaviour and social altruism demonstrates.

But their single best advert for their articles, a one-stop shop that gathered them all in one place, seems to have died a death.

It’s such as shame for a publication that has the rare and enviable record of publishing engaging pieces by writers who actually understand the science.

Link to moribund ‘Mental Health and Behavior’ page (thanks Jeremy!).
Link to excellent piece on genetics and moral behaviour.

Smart drugs, 1948

There’s a copy of a wonderful 1948 article magazine available online entitled ‘Pills That Increase Your Intelligence’ from Modern Mechanix .

It discusses the possibilities of ‘smart drugs’ and is full of archaic language that makes it equally shocking and endearing.

Can you feed your brain some special food to make it smarter? Scientists have always laughed at the idea. Now they aren’t quite so cocksure. Maybe your brain does have faster speed and quicker getaway when it runs on certain fuels. New scientific discoveries indicate that brain power can be stepped up by swallowing tablets. These pills are not stimulating drugs but concentrates of a food element you eat every day.

Let’s look into the strange story of one particular brain. It wasn’t a very good brain. In fact, it belonged to a fourteen-year-old imbecile boy who had an intelligence quotient of 42 (the average I. Q. is 100). Every year the boy grew twelve months older, but his mental age increased only four and a half months. He kept running an intelligence deficit. Then he was fed little white pills, a dozen and a half daily. Within two months his mental age leaped ahead one year and five months. Sixty days on brain pills and his mental age increased as much as it had in the last five years!

It sounds much like the ‘miracle cure’ claims that conditions like autism attract to the present day.

Link to 1948 Modern Mechanix article (via Bad Science).

Salon’s Mind Reader

Salon have just announced the start of a regular series of neuroscience articles with the first tackling whether brain scans might enable us to communicate with people who are conscious but trapped in their paralysed bodies.

The article considers a recent scientific paper [pdf] on the use of brain imaging to detect awareness in people who might otherwise be thought to be in a coma-like state, but actually are largely unable to communicate with the outside world because they’re paralysed.

We’ve covered two studies during the last few years that have reported consciousness in what were thought to be unconscious patients owing to the fact that their brain activity seemed to reflect complex mental processes or could be altered at will, following verbal requests from the researchers.

There are two main implications of this work, the first is that we could better diagnose patients as being paralysed rather than in comas, and the second is the hope that we could design systems to read the brain activity in a reliable enough way to allow affected people to communicate with the ‘outside world’.

With all of the brain scan hype we get subjected to, the article considers an important but rarely discussed point – although revolutionary, fMRI isn’t a very accurate measure of brain activity and we can’t directly infer subjective mental states from brain scan data.

This means its utility as a tool for detecting consciousness, let alone ‘mind reading’, is severely limited.

Interestingly, the article is written by a neurologist called Robert Burton, who shares a name with the author of the 17th century book The Anatomy of Melancholy which remains one of the best books ever written on the troubled mind.

It seems this article is the first in a new series called Mind Reader – “a new Salon feature exploring the galaxy of the brain.”

Link to Salon article ‘The light’s on, but is anybody home?’.
pdf of review article on fMRI detectection of awareness in coma-like states.

PR for the self: managing identity on social networks

The New Atlantis magazine has an intriguing article that considers the social effects of sites like MySpace and Facebook and discusses how we are increasingly using these tools to carefully manage our public image – something that was previously only a concern for celebrities and media figures.

The article describes by describing the social networking sites and how they work and discusses a little of their history, but shortly after, it tackles the psychology of how we use them to manage our online identities.

The world of online social networking is practically homogenous in one other sense, however diverse it might at first appear: its users are committed to self-exposure. The creation and conspicuous consumption of intimate details and images of one‚Äôs own and others‚Äô lives is the main activity in the online social networking world. There is no room for reticence; there is only revelation. Quickly peruse a profile and you know more about a potential acquaintance in a moment than you might have learned about a flesh-and-blood friend in a month. As one college student recently described to the New York Times Magazine: “You might run into someone at a party, and then you Facebook them: what are their interests? Are they crazy-religious, is their favorite quote from the Bible? Everyone takes great pains over presenting themselves. It’s like an embodiment of your personality.”

The article also covers some key studies in social network analysis, the science of understanding how relationships between people facilitate large scale social interaction.

And it also discusses some recent ideas on how these tools might be changing the nature of our relationships as a consequence of simply becoming part of the equation.

Link to article ‘Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism’.

Encephalon 32 arrives

Edition 32 of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just been published on Living the Scientific Life.

A couple of my favourites include an article on foreign accent syndrome and another on the cerebellum as the cause of dyslexia.

Head on over for plenty more scientific curiosities from the internet’s best mind and brain writers.

Link to Encephalon 32.

The greatest may never come

Over the next two weeks the BPS Research Digest will be publishing articles by leading psychologists on the greatest psychology experiment that’s never been done.

Each contributor was asked to think of a psychology study they would love to see completed, even if it would be so impractical, it would never be possible.

Two will be published each day over over the coming week, and the first ones have just appeared online.

Susan Blackmore suggests we could brain scan people as they die to understand near-death experiences, while Pam Maras thinks we should do a social psychology experiment that looks at every possible interaction in everyday life.

During the week, the authors will suggest studies on the mind of the unborn child, resisting oppression, kindness-centred care for psychosis, the effect of switching parents, and radically reshaping the mind to improve its performance, to name but a few.

Other authors include Richard Gregory, Will Meek, Richard Bentall, Chris Chatham, Martin Seligman, Jeremy Dean, Alex Haslam, Judith Harris, Scott Lilienfeld and Annette Karmiloff-Smith.

So keep tabs on the BPS Research Digest over the coming week to catch the latest releases.

I’ve also been asked to contribute, and an article on using detectives to find the line between reality and psychosis will be appearing in the next few days.

I realise that means I included myself as a ‘leading psychologist’ in the opening line, but the more accurate description of “articles by leading psychologists and one over-caffeinated keyboard monkey” made the intro a bit clumsy. Either way, it should be a great series.

Link to ‘The most important psychology experiment that’s Never been done…?’