Want fries with that?

Neurophilosophy discusses a recent study that suggests that the inclusion of large amounts of starchy foods into our diet helped fuel the evolution of the brain.

It’s interesting because it’s not the first study to suggest that specific changes in diet improved nutrition and brain development:

According to one theory, increased consumption of meat by our ancestors provided the additional energy needed for brain expansion. (Cooking would have further increased the amount of calories obtained from meat.) Another holds that a switch to a seafood-rich diet would have provided polyunsaturated fatty acids which, when incorporated into nerve cell membranes, would have made the brain function more efficiently.

And now, a study published in Nature Genetics adds starchy tubers to the smorgasbord of foodstuffs that may have contributed to the expansion of the human brain.

These theories tend to be quite controversial and tend to cause numerous back and forth arguments in the literature, partly because they’re quite hard to test, largely owing to the fact that the brain has the consistency of toothpaste and so doesn’t leave much of a fossil record.

The study picked up by Neurophilosophy is interesting because it tracks a gene that codes for a starch enzyme, needed to break down starch into glucose.

It’s a relatively new approach to an old problem, although as the article mentions, the link to brain evolution is still circumstantial.

However, it’s an interesting areas and the Neurophilosophy article is a great brief guide to some of the thinking behind these theories.

Link to Neurophilosophy on ‘Diet and brain evolution’.

2007-09-21 Spike activity

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

SharpBrains has an interview with cognitive behaviour therapy guru Judith Beck about using CBT for effective dieting.

Wired wonders whether EEG-based brain-to-game interfaces may mess with our heads.

Hard-up students: Aren’t there a lot of psychology textbooks on torrent servers these days? Just sayin’

Genes which raise risk for schizophrenia have likely been positively selected for during evolution, reports SciAm.

The BPS Research Digest reports that having a pen in your mouth impairs your ability to recognise emotions in others, as you’re not as good at mirroring their facial expression.

Sally Satel discusses the early rumblings over the new DSM (due out 2012) in The New York Times.

NPR has an interesting programme on the the application of mathematics to tracking social networks of terrorists.

A lovely snippet from Cognitive Daily: more evidence that everyone has a little synesthesia.

Pinker’s working the crowd: An NPR radio interview on the new book, and Discover Magazine interview on the same.

Can information be directed to different networks in the brain depending on the “transmission frequency“, like the channels on a TV? Developing Intelligence investigates.

Forget troubled teens. The New York Times reports on baby boomers behaving badly.

To the bunkers! Further evidence that Skynet is about to become sentient:
* AIs set loose in virtual worlds to ‘hone their skills’.
* Reason Magazine will be saying ‘I told you so’ when AIs keep us as pets!

OmniBrain notes that the 2008 Visual Illusion Contest is open and accepting entries.

Track the performance of the neurotech industry!

Dr Petra discusses a recent study that asked teens about their definition of virginity – which is remarkably variable.

US Government outsources their wacky mind-control fantasies to Russia.

Analyse the negative, bask in the positive. PsyBlog has some evidence-based advice for increasing life satisfaction.

PsychCentral notes that the APA have earmarked $7.6 million ($7.6 million!) to upgrade their website over the next two years. PsychologicalReviewTube to be launched in 2009.

Pure Pedantry has found some beautiful pictures of the pre-synapse.

Gone, and yet forgotten

An interesting section from neuropsychiatrist Michael Kopelman’s 2002 review article on the neuropsychology of memory disorders where he tackles transient global amnesia – a form of brief, severe, but mysterious amnesia that resolves in a few hours. No-one really knows what causes the majority of cases.

Transient global amnesia (TGA) most commonly occurs in the middle-aged or elderly, more frequently in men, and results in a period of amnesia lasting several hours. As is well known, it is characterized by repetitive questioning, and there may be some confusion, but patients do not report any loss of personal identity.

It is sometimes preceded by headache or nausea, a stressful life event, a medical procedure, intense emotion or vigorous exercise. Hodges and Ward (1989) found that the mean duration of amnesia was 4h and the maximum 12h. In 25% of their sample, there was a past history of migraine, which was considered to have a possible aetiological role.

In a further 7%, the patients subsequently developed unequivocal features of epilepsy in the absence of any previous history of seizures. There was no association with either a past history of or risk factors for vascular disease, nor with clinical signs indicating a vascular pathology. In particular, there was no association with transient ischaemic attacks.

In 60-70% of the sample, the underlying aetiology was unclear.

Link to full-text of paper ‘Disorders of memory’.

Won’t you help me doctor beat

Musicogenic epilepsy is a neurological disorder where epileptic seizures are uncontrollably triggered by music. Gloria Estefan’s Dr Beat is a catchy 80s pop song where she calls for medical assistance because music is irresistibly moving her body, moving her soul and affecting her brain.

Coincidence? I think not.

Doctor, I’ve got this feelin’ deep inside of me, deep inside of me
I just cant control my feet, when I hear the beat
when I hear the beat
Hey doctor, could you give me somethin’ to ease the pain
cause if you dont help me soon gonna lose my brain
gonna go insane

Despite Ms Estefan’s requests, painkillers are unlikely to help with the acute effects of seizure.

First-line treatment is usually a rapid acting benzodiazepine and long-term stabilisation with a common anticonvulsant such as sodium valproate.

While her concerns about her mental health are understandable (people with epilepsy are at a slightly higher risk of developing mental illness), the majority of people with the condition lead full and active lives, so her fear of insanity is largely unfounded.

There are many cases of musicogenic epilepsy in the medical literature but, unfortunately, only a few few are freely available online. One is particularly interesting though and is available as a pdf file.

It’s a 1957 article published in Psychosomatic Medicine that reports three fascinating cases, including a girl who had her seizures triggered by swing music that induced, among other things, hallucinations of a smartly dressed couple.

For those of you wanting something a bit more up-to-date though, YouTube has the a Dr Beat Mylo remix Dr Who video mashup. Same symptoms, new medical staff.

pdf of ‘Musicogenic Epilepsy: Report of Three Cases’.
Link to Dr Beat lyrics.
Link to original Dr. Beat video.
Link to Dr Beat remix Dr Who tribute mashup.

Building on brain clich√©s

The Financial Times has a slightly bizarre article on the application of neuroscience to architecture that suggests that we’re genetically predisposed to feel relaxed around flowers, the hearth and food, and that homes need to be designed to release certain neurotransmitters.

The piece is about the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) which aims to use neuroscience in building design and encourage brain research into the effects of buildings.

I’m all for the wider application of neuroscience, and I’m sure there are some relevant findings that could be applied, but the article is full of so many erroneous brain clich√©s that I just despair.

Zeisel is also a director of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA), an organisation launched in 2003 to encourage scientists to get out of the lab and partner with architects and designers. “It’s the future of the field,” he says. “People might ask what neuroscience has to do with designing an ’emotional’ house but our emotions are managed by our brain,” Zeisel says. “When our brains are happy a certain endorphin gets released, so we need to design homes in order to release that neuro-transmitter.”

Endorphins are the brain’s natural opioids and are released in a wide variety of situations. They are indeed released when we feel pleasure, but are also released when we feel stress or pain.

So designing homes to maximise the release of endorphins will just as likely lead to uncomfortable, stressful hell-holes.

Take our desire for eye contact with others as an example. “A couple of million kitchens are planned each year and probably only about 5 per cent obey the most basic principles for human communication,” [kitchen designer!] Grey says. In most, the person preparing the food at the sink, stove or counter has to face away from his or her family or guests, decreasing sociability in what should be a social zone. “As a result the brain continues to produce adrenalin and cortisol, the hormones associated with fear and anxiety,” he says. “Whereas if they are facing [into the room] then oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and serotonin, associated with relaxation and enjoyment, are released.”

So, it not only makes the common but false link between specific mental states and general neurotransmitters, makes unproven claims between specific activies and the release of these neurotransmitters, but also makes the unsupported claim that facing away from people in the kitchen causes fear and anxiety, while facing towards them causes relaxation and enjoyment.

Zeisel suggests that responses to some features of the home might even be innate. “We are born with genetically developed instincts that make us feel relaxed around flowers, the hearth, food and water,” he says. “It’s simply an emotional need and using those things in the environment will make us feel more comfortable.” On the flip side, places that seem too sterile or too confusing are perceived as dangerous, which can trigger the hypothalamus to release stress hormones.

There’s no evidence that we are genetically predisposed to feel relaxed around “flowers, the hearth, food and water”. Perceiving things are dangerous does indeed lead to the release of stress-related hormones, but there’s no evidence that ‘confusing’ or ‘sterile’ buildings do this.

Of course, buildings that are ‘too sterile’ or ‘too confusing’ might do, but therein lies a circular argument, because you’ve already defined them as having a negative influence.

Professor Joan Meyers-Levy of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management is another academic interested in how our surroundings affect our physical and mental states. Her research shows that when people are in a room with high ceilings, it activates sections of the right brain associated with freedom and abstract thinking. In low-ceilinged rooms, more constrained thinking is brought to the fore. “There’s a preference in terms of real estate for high ceilings and it‚Äôs [not only] the sense of power and wealth that conveys but also [the fact that] vertical space could have a beneficial mental influence,” she says.

To be completely fair to Meyers-Levey, her study [pdf] was a perfectly reasonable investigation into the effect of ceiling height on priming – an effect where an initial stimulus quickens your ability to react to related things.

However, the brain is not even mentioned in the paper, let alone measured in any way. The bit about high-ceilings activating the ‘right brain’ has just been added, seemingly from nowhere, by the journalist.

Two papers were recently published in Cell about the application of neuroscience to architecture, but importantly, they speculate, but don’t actually reference any studies that have looked at the influence of building design on the brain. The article then goes on to repeat several of the speculations as fact.

I think the article may be a candidate for the Dr Alfred Crockus Award for the Misuse of Neuroscience.

As an aside, Crockus fans may be interested to hear that he’s been tracked down to the hitherto unknown but undoubtedly endorphin stimulating ‘Boston Medical University Hospital’.

UPDATE: Christian just reminded me that he wrote an article for The Psychologist late last year that looked at how psychology is being increasingly used in architecture. It also discusses specific scientific research on psychology and building design. It’s an excellent antidote to the Crockus from the FT.

Link to ropey FT article.
Link to Psychologist article ‘Is there a psychologist in the building?’.

Sexuality special in this week’s Psychiatric Times

The latest edition of the Psychiatric Times has a special section on sexuality that discusses everything from dealing with sex-related problems as a clinician, to the science of sexual orientation.

It’s actually quite a refreshing change from much of the recent hype we’ve seen about sexual dysfunction, which usually suggests that a patch, pill or prostheses is an essential treatment for unsatisfactory sex.

Psychiatrists who develop an interest in clinical sexuality tend to employ 2 different paradigms, depending on the clinical situation. One is quite familiar to modern psychiatric continuing education. The patient has a disorder, we possess a range of medication treatments, and the etiological theories support our treatment. Lifelong premature ejaculation is an ideal example.

Another paradigm is necessary for most sexual disorders, however. We approach these disorders from the viewpoint of general etiology rather than disorder-specific causation. Sexuality unfolds in adolescence and continues to evolve over decades of adult maturation. The sexual problem serves as a window into personal development and individual and relationship psychology. Sex is understood to be about the unfolding of the individual self, the capacity to give and receive pleasure, the capacity to love and to be loved, the ability to be psychologically intimate, and the ability to manage expected and unexpected changes throughout adulthood.

Since few sexual dysfunctions have a specific treatment, diagnosis per se usually is not the determinant of treatment. Rather, it is the invitation to study the context in which the problem arose. Treatment rests on the clinician’s understanding of how biological, psychological, interpersonal, and cultural factors combined in this case to create the symptom. This second paradigm reminds psychiatrists that the management of sexual disorders often requires interest and skills in psychotherapy.

The fact that most sexual problems are a manifestation of wider difficulties with relationships, mood, or adjustment is taken as read by most clinicians working in the area.

Unfortunately, most of the messages we encounter from TV, magazines and V!aGr4 spam suggest sexual difficulties are nothing more than a physical problem that needs a fix – as if you could help someone drive better by selling them tyres.

Link to August Psychiatric Times.

Here’s one we prepared earlier

This week’s edition of New Scientist has a cover article outlining a number of try-it-yourself experiments that give you an insight into the cognitive science of the mind and brain.

Hang on a minute, that sounds familiar.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if so, the British science weekly have just paid a huge complement to Tom and Matt.

The NewSci article has six sections, each covering different areas of neuroscience, and each of which uses at least one example that appeared in the Mind Hacks book, and in some cases several. Here’s the overlap:

NS: Seeing isn’t believing
MH: Hack #17 Glimpse the Gaps in Your Vision
MH: Hack #18 When Time Stands Still
MH: Hack #49 Speech is Broadband Input into Your Head
MH: Hack #59 Hear With Your Eyes: The McGurk Effect
MH: Hack #53 Put Timing Information Into Sound and Location Information into Light

NS: This is not my nose
MH: Hack #63 Keep Hold of Yourself
MH: Hack #64 Mold Your Body Schema

NS: A Brain of two halves
MH: Hack #69 Use Your Right Brain – And Your Left, Too

NS: Probe your subconscious
MH: Hack #80 Act Without Knowing It

NS: Pay attention!
MH: Hack #36 Feel the Presence and Loss of Attention
MH: Hack #40 Blind to change
MH: Hack #41 Make Things Invisible Simply by Concentrating (On Something Else)

NS: Made-up memories
MH: Hack #85 Create false memories

Actually, several of the NewSci sections have completely new examples and have otherwise added updates with the latest scientific findings. A few discuss areas untouched in the book, but mainly they cover the same ground.

If you’ve got the book already, it’s an interesting update with some new experiments to try. And if you haven’t, it’s like the book, but shorter.

In fact, some of the article text mirrors the flow of the book rather closely. And not even a favourable nod to Tom and Matt. Tsk! Tsk! Tsk!

Sadly, the article isn’t freely available online, so you’ll have to buy a copy to have a look.

UPDATE: Grabbed from a comments, feedback from the author:

Yes, Mind Hacks was a major inspiration for this article. But there’s loads of new stuff in there too. And it does give a nod to Tom Stafford and Matt Webb. That’s why it says at the end “Further Reading: Mind Hacks: Tips and tools for using your brain, by Tom Stafford and Matt Webb (O’Reilly 2006).”

Keep up the good work!

Thanks Graham. Unfortunately, the Further Reading section doesn’t appear on the online version, which is why I missed it.

Link to Scientific American. Petty, I know.
Link to NewSci article. The world is at peace.