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.