Sleep attacks may be caused by immune problems

Narcolepsy is a disorder where the affected person can just drop off to sleep during the day. It’s known to be a problem with the brain’s arousal system and an interesting article in Discover magazine discusses recent findings that suggest a immune system impairment may be at the root of the problem.

As well as falling asleep unexpectedly, people with narcolepsy can experience other sleep experiences that would usually be a relatively common part of sleep (such as confusing dreams with reality, waking or drifting off hallucinations, sleep walking-like activity and paralysis) but because they are so often dropping in and out of consciousness, they occur more frequently or more intensely than in others.

Because of these strange and unpredictable phenomena, sufferers often appear to be drunk or delusional rather than just extremely sleepy. Why the disease has such a wide range of effects isn’t completely understood, but in recent years a potential cause—the loss of hormone-producing neurons, possibly through an autoimmune response—has been identified. That knowledge in turn promises to pave the way for more precise treatments and stronger relief from narcolepsy’s debilitating symptoms.

Studies looking at the genetics of the disorder have found that about 90% of cases can be linked to a gene which is involved in the regulation of the immune system.

It is thought that this may lead to the erroneous destruction of the hormone hypocretin, which is known to be involved in the sleep-wake cycle.

Link to article ‘What Breaks Down the Asleep/Awake Divide?’

Tuning the ageing brain

Wired News has a brief article on how ageing affects the brain and what are the current best-supported practices to keep our mental edge as we progress into our senior years.

The article discusses ways in which the brain overcomes the natural decline in function and how this process can be supported.

Despite the current interest in ‘brain training’, which in its current version seems to have a moderate effect at best, the most effective technique seems to be physical exercise (although a combination of both may well be the best option of course).

Exercise is known both to boost mood and maintain the blood supply network to the brain, both of which are known to be crucial to mental functioning.

What’s the advice for now?

Physical exercise is the best-proven prescription so far, the scientists agreed. Memory improved when 72-year-olds started a walking program three days a week, and sophisticated scans showed their brains’ activity patterns started resembling those of younger people.

Then there’s the “use-it-or-lose-it” theory, that people with higher education, more challenging occupations and enriched social lives build more cognitive reserve than couch potatoes.

It’s never too late to start building up that reserve, said Columbia University neuroscientist Yaakov Stern. But, “the question is how. What is the recipe?”

Everything from doing crossword puzzles to various computer-based brain-training programs has been touted, but nothing is yet proven to work. Johns Hopkins University has a major government-funded study under way called the “Experience Corps,” where older adults volunteer to tutor school students 15 hours a week, to see if such long-term stimulation maintains the elders’ brains.

What about medication? Companies have been reluctant to test side effect-prone drugs in an otherwise healthy aging brain, but scientists cited animal studies suggesting low-dose estrogen and drugs that might mimic or ramp up brain signaling are promising possibilities.

Link to Wired article ‘Doctors Discuss Theories on Aging Brains’.

The immortal brain

New Scientist has an article and video interviews with several transhumanists who are attempting to make the human brain immortal by reversing neural ageing, implanting stem cells and uploading the mind to a computer.

Transhumanism is a movement that aims to enhance the limits of human capabilities through techology.

The ideas stretche from the reasonable and shortly to be possible, to the outlandish and barely conceivable.

Unlike some other slightly left-field movements, it’s got some heavy-weight scientists attached to it. This means it’s rarely dull and at the very least it’s thought-provoking, even when it does stretch to the outer limits of sci-fi philosophy.

The New Scientist article discusses the possibilities of escaping death by developing the cutting edge of biotech.

Sandberg and his fellow transhumanists plan to bypass death by using technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), genetic engineering and nanotechnology to radically accelerate human evolution, eventually merging people with machines to make us immortal. This may not be possible yet, the transhumanists reason, but as long as they live long enough – a few decades perhaps – the technology will surely catch up.

To many, these ideas sound seriously scary, and transhumanists have been attacked for jeopardising the future of humanity. What if they ended up creating a race of elite superhumans bent on enslaving the unmodified masses, or unwittingly programmed an army of self-replicating nanobots that would turn us all into grey goo? In 2004, political scientist Francis Fukuyama singled out transhumanism as the world’s “most dangerous idea”.

If you think these fears are unreasonable, have a look at some of the Marvin Minsky quotes later in the article. He obviously wants to be robot overlord when SkyNet becomes sentient.

Link to New Scientist article ‘The plan for eternal life’.
Link to video interview with Sandberg, de Grey and Bostrom.

Walking the line

Last weekend, a group of mental health professionals took part in a study as part of the art science collaboration Walking Here and There. It’s a joint effort between myself and artist Simon Pope, and like earlier stages of the project, it questions how we use art and science to construct meaning out of memory, location and psychosis.

The study looked at the influence of recall on walking behaviour, drawing on an existing paradigm in psychosis research.

But the experiment was also designed to give the participants an experience common to psychiatric inpatients: feeling disoriented, having their experience of the hospital affected by their memories of being outside, and being experimented on.

The experiment was designed, reviewed and ethically approved, with the scientific aim of looking at how walking is affected by recall via differences in hemispheric activation.

Participants were asked to walk a route around Ruskin Park, a tranquil green area near to the Maudsley Hospital which inpatients often visit on breaks from the ward. Later, while blindfolded and earplugged, participants were asked to recall aloud their stroll around the park while attempting to keep to a midline in a basement corridor of the hospital.

A similar approach has found that people with higher levels of schizotypy (subclinical psychosis-like experiences) and people given the dopamine boosting drug L-DOPA, are more likely to veer to the left on this task, reflecting increased right hemisphere activation.

Recall is known to preferentially activate the right hemisphere, so we might expect greater left veering during the task.

However, the study was located both to communicate some of the subjective experience of psychiatric inpatients to Maudsley staff, and also as a commentary on mental health care, as patients often find their time in the park more therapeutic than the disorienting environment of the hospital.

By doing this, we’re also attempting to question whether experiments can be meaningful beyond their data.

Occasionally, the sheer existence of a study has profound implications for society. Experiments such as Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment or Milgram’s conformity experiment were landmarks in reforming the ethics of participation owing to the subjective experience of the participants and their attempt to study the extremes of human behaviour.

With the increased ethical scrutiny into research, perhaps experiments are now only valued for their data, and participants only for their behaviour.

An earlier phase of the project, Gallery Space Recall, was a gallery exhibition without any objects. Visitors, largely artists and art curators, were asked to recall, while walking through the gallery, their experience of an earlier exhibition.

And while the walking experiment was designed to comment on mental health care, one of the main themes for Simon was that Gallery Space Recall critiqued the art world and its obsession with saleable objects and the prestige of gallery spaces.

But in terms of the experience, the gallery visitors were asked to value their subjective experience as a key component in the piece, rather than relying on any objective aspects of an artwork.

In the walking experiment, we attempted to do something similar, but rather than attempting to highlight the role of subjective experience in art, we focused on the subjective aspects of science.

We’re debating what to do with the experimental data, and we think we might bury it – to create an exhibition without objects and an experiment without data.

Link to Walking Here and There.

Hard cash medicine

The Bonkers Institute for Nearly Genuine Research has just published an important paper on how hard cash has had miraculous effects in two of particularly tough cases of depression and anxiety.

Elation and euphoria are the most common side effects associated with cash. The favorable side effect profile and high response rate compared to placebo are the main advantages of cash over standard pharmaceutical treatment, while the major disadvantage of cash would appear to be its prohibitive cost.

Of course, doubters may question whether the financial windfalls were genuinely the cause of the cure, but the improvements in well-being were scientifically confirmed by brain scans and a mood ring.

Link to Cash Therapy in the Treatment of Anxiety and Depression (thanks Ben!).

Possible blood test for Alzheimer’s disease

The New York Times reports on a study shortly to be published in Nature Medicine that has developed a blood test that can predict the development of Alzheimer’s disease with 90% accuracy.

One of the difficulties with Alzheimer’s disease, and indeed most forms of dementia, is that by the time the characteristic mental difficulties are noted, the disease has already been affecting the brain for some time.

It would be useful if these changes could be detected way before they started to affect memory, attention and so on, so the clinical team can intervene as soon as possible.

To this end, the researchers looked at the levels of various proteins in the blood of a number of older people who had ‘mild cognitive impairment‘ – detectable but relatively slight mental difficulties for their age.

Each participant was followed up so the team knew whether these initial cognitive difficulties developed into Alzheimer’s disease or not.

A statistical analysis looked at which of 120 proteins most distinguished the two groups and a group of 18 key proteins were identified which could be used to diagnose the groups with 90% accuracy.

Interestingly, the protein analysis suggested that Alzheimer’s may be linked to problems with inflammation, blood growth, neuroprotection, neural growth, waste cell removal and energy regulation.

The clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is based on mental difficulties and possible brain scan evidence. However, it can’t be diagnosed for certain until the brain is examined after the person has died.

In this case, an additional important step was completed by examining some of the post-mortem brains to confirm the diagnosis and, reassuringly, the blood test retained its accuracy.

It seems that this test is only useful in picking up people who are already developing the disorder but don’t show any symptoms yet, so it can’t be used on young people to determine who will develop the disorder later in life.

Link to NYT article ‘Progress Cited in Alzheimer‚Äôs Diagnosis’.
Link to write-up from Nature News.
Link to abstract of scientific study.

The roots of language may lie in our hands

Science News reviews two books that propose a thought-provoking hypothesis about the evolution of language: that our ability to communicate verbally evolved from hand gestures.

The first book, Talking Hands is a study on a sign language developed by a Bedouin community only a short time ago that is used widely by both deaf and hearing members of the community.

As a relatively new phenomenon, it has allowed researchers to study a spontaneously created language as it develops.

The book also touches on the evolution of language and notes that while primates typically have poor control over their vocal chords, they have a precise control over their hands allowing huge scope for symbolic representation.

The second book, The Gestural Origin of Language directly addresses the issue and argues that sign, not spoken languages, are the original mode of human communication.

Armstrong and Wilcox, building on their earlier work with Stokoe, get around this problem by redefining language itself. In their hands, as it were, language is considered an embodied system whereby bodily gestures become ritualized and conventionalized into an accepted communication system. Given that our ancestors were tree-dwelling primates, our hands are well adapted to create four-dimensional space-time representations of the four-dimensional world. This ability was especially amenable to exploitation once our hominin forebears became bipedal and gained additional freedom of hand movement. With conventionalization, gestures become simplified and may lose their iconic aspect, but they are readily maintained through cultural transmission.

In this view, speech itself is a gestural system, composed of movements of the lips, velum and larynx, and the blade, body and root of the tongue. This is consistent with the so-called “motor theory of speech perception” developed at the Haskins Laboratories (a private research institute in New Haven, Connecticut) during the 1960s, which holds that the perception of speech is not so much an acoustic phenomenon as the recovery, through sound, of speech gestures. The arbitrary nature of speech sounds is not a fundamental property of language but is rather the consequence of the medium through which the gestures are expressed. The authors aptly quote the linguist Charles Hockett: “When a representation of some four-dimensional hunk of life has to be compressed into the single dimension of speech, most iconicity is necessarily squeezed out.” The concentration on speech may have created a myopic view of what language is really all about.

It’s a challenging hypothesis that asks us to reconsider that spoken language, often quoted as the defining feature of humanity, may be a relatively recent form of communication.

On a purely aesthetic level, I find sign language beautiful and utterly mesmerising and after a quick search on YouTube it seems there is a healthy online signing community.

One of my favourites is a video of someone signing Dusty Springfield’s Son of a Preacherman.

Link to Science News book review.

Plain talking

An excerpt from Prof Nick Craddock’s no-nonsense review of the book ‘The Overlap of Affective and Schizophrenic Spectra’ in this month’s British Journal of Psychiatry:

If this book is not of interest, the reader has no business being a psychiatrist.

I think he likes it.

With Michael Owen and Michael O’Donovan, Craddock has been instrumental is completing genetic research into bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

The research has shown that these disorders are unlikely to be distinct conditions, but just different points on a spectrum of problems with mood and thinking.

Link to BJP review of ‘The Overlap of Affective and Schizophrenic Spectra’.

Art in the asylum

ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind has just broadcast the first of a two-part series on two of the most important collections of art by psychiatric patients. The programme considers the ethical and artistic issues raised by displaying the creative work of people who may be experiencing profound alteration in their thinking.

The first part explores Australia’s Cunningham Dax Collection, named after Eric Cunningham Dax, a psychiatrist who realised the therapeutic potential of art and encouraged artistic expression by patients.

Cunnigham Dax collected the artworks not for the aesthetic value, however, and saw their interest largely in clinical terms – as a way of better understanding the problems of the mind.

In contrast, the Prinzhorn collection (which we discussed earlier on Mind Hacks) was meant to highlight the artistic talents of people with mental illness, and so historically has had quite a different approach.

The programme is incredibly thought provoking both in terms of how we understand the artistic significance of these works, and the ethics of these collections.

For example, considering the works purely of clinical interest seems to rob the creator of any artistic voice or creative credit, while considering them of purely artistic interest perhaps robs the creator of the rights of confidentiality ascribed to medical patients.

The programme also touches on the power of these artworks to stir strong emotions and communicate seemingly alien experiences and has obviously generated a lot of interest, as the Dax Collection website has slowed to a snail’s pace.

Next week’s programme will examine the Prinzhorn Collection and its remarkable survival during a period when the Nazi’s attempted to eradicate what they considered ‘degenerate art‘.

Link to AITM on ‘Art in the Asylum’.
Link to Cunningham Dax collection.

Second Life with a brain-computer interface

Neurophilosophy has found some fantastic footage of someone controlling their Second Life avatar using a brain-computer interface developed by the Biomedical Engineering Lab from Keio University in Japan.

From watching the video, navigation is certainly quite possible, if not a little awkward. One of the striking things is that the person cannot seem to be able to easily move forward and change direction at the same time.

Presumably, this is quite a tricky problem for a brain-computer interface (BCI), as they work by converting electrical patterns from the brain into keyboard responses.

While your average Halo player will be able to combine key presses to maybe move, change direction, shoot and lock at the same time, it’s difficult both for the BCI to learn to distinguish each of these commands, as well as for the person to train themselves to think in the ‘right way’ so the brain generates distinct enough patterns for each combination.

Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see quite how far the technology has gone. A fairly simply rig now allows control within a consumer environment.

Not quite The Matrix but still a useful development for a technology that might seriously benefit people with paralysis.

Link to Neurophilosophy with brain-computer interface / Second Life footage.

Ear boxing apparently a cure for mental illness

Mental health professionals, user support groups, friends and family. Good news has arrived. Someone has found a cure for all mental illnesses and all that is needed is that you hit them on the ears until they lose consciousness.

This ‘cure’, apparently christened the Kadir-Buxton Method, is detailed on a website so weird that I’m not entirely sure it isn’t a hoax, but it’s quite entertaining either way.

Apparently, it’s the “biggest breakthrough in Medicine since my invention Microsurgery” [sic] and the core of the technique is “striking both ears of the patient at exactly the same time” to render the person unconscious.

No really, it is.

The procedure is painless and the patient regains consciousness faster the less hard the double blow is struck. With practice, I am able to render the patients unconscious for only thirty seconds. Other individuals have faired even better.

At this point I would like to explain the difference between a stun and a punch. With the Kadir-Buxton Method, a patient standing on one leg whilst holding a rose would still be standing on one leg and holding a rose when they were cured. With a punch, the patient would be lying prone on the floor, and could well have dropped the rose. And just to add insult to injury, they would still be mentally ill. Try it for yourselves if you do not believe me.

Actually, hitting the ears can be dangerous as the air pressure can burst the ear drums, so it’s really not recommended.

However, an equally serious side-effect is that the ‘patient’ might hit you back.

Link to frankly odd Kadir-Buxton Method (thanks Liz!).

2007-10-12 Spike activity

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

Alternatives to the ‘war on drugs‘ are discussed by Foreign Policy magazine.

Language Log picks up on a startling new discovery from Dr Alfred Crokus’s lab: the corpus callosum is the ‘caring membrane‘ in the brain. Will wonders never cease?

The Neurocritic has a fantastic article on the neuroscience of social norms.

ABC Radio National’s The Health Report has a special on drugs and the teenage mind.

Neurophilosophy discovers some beautiful and striking memory art.

Is shyness a mental illness? PsyBlog considers whether diagnosis has gone too far and discusses how to overcome shy feelings.

New Scientist reports on a study that has found that seemingly spontaneous brain activity causes spontaneous mistaykes.

BPS Research Digest reports on an interesting study that differing attitudes about an individual’s place in society in Asian and American people can affect reasoning about time and place.

Oliver Sacks’s soon-to-be-released book ‘Musicophilia’ is reviewed by Slate.

PsychCentral has some important information on signs that someone might be suicidal.

Research finds a link between certain genes and risk of suicide after antidepressant use, according to a piece in Science News.

Deric Bownd’s discusses an interesting new study on the neuroscience of consciousness.

Fox News headline “Brain Found in Bag Outside Virginia Apartment Complex“. Quite unlike all those simple ones that have been found recently.

A recent study on spontaneous laughing and crying that can occur after a stroke is discussed by Corpus Callosum.

Epilepsy drug topiramate helps alcoholics quit the bottle according to a new study picked up by New Scientist.

Treatment Online reports that people with anorexia may have an altered sense of taste.

Video games may reduce gender gap in spatial ability. Cognitive Daily find and explain another cool study.

WTF? Pinker on swearing

The New Republic has an article by Steven Pinker that investigates the psychology, neuroscience and cultural significance of swearing.

Swearing isn’t just of interest to cognitive scientists for its day-to-day uses. We’ve known for many years that swearing holds a special place in the brain because of how neurological damage affects language abilities.

For most people, language is heavily reliant on the left hemisphere of the brain and extensive damage to this area can so severely impair speech that both expressing and understanding language becomes near impossible (a condition known as ‘global aphasia‘).

However, patients with this sort of profound language impairment can often still swear like troopers.

Swearing seems to be much more associated with the right hemisphere, probably as the words are much more heavily emotional and so rely more on the various emotion networks in this side of the brain.

Pinker, of course, has a wide-ranging interest in language and discusses not only the neural basis for swearing, but the bizarre place it holds in our culture, as well as what it reveals about the structure of language itself.

When used judiciously, swearing can be hilarious, poignant, and uncannily descriptive. More than any other form of language, it recruits our expressive faculties to the fullest: the combinatorial power of syntax; the evocativeness of metaphor; the pleasure of alliteration, meter, and rhyme; and the emotional charge of our attitudes, both thinkable and unthinkable. It engages the full expanse of the brain: left and right, high and low, ancient and modern. Shakespeare, no stranger to earthy language himself, had Caliban speak for the entire human race when he said, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.”

As an aside, once, whilst drinking with a psycholinguist (say that after a few pints) I was taught a useful way of quickly working out the stressed syllable in any English word – something which is apparently called the ‘fuck test’.

Simply insert the word ‘fucking’ into the word, as if you were using the swear word for emphasis, and the syllable that follows the ‘fucking’ is the stressed syllable.

For example, absolutely -> abso-fucking-lutely. The stressed syllable is the third: i.e. absolutely. It works for every multi-syllable word I’ve found so far.

Which just goes to show that psycholinguists are some of the coolest melonfarmers in the whole of cognitive science.

Link to New Republic article ‘What the F***?’.

Dr Saksida’s neuropsychology fitness video

Spiked has a video of cognitive neuroscientist Dr Lisa Saksida doing yoga in front of the fire while explaining why there is no such thing as mind brain duality.

Spiked asked several scientists what they would say if they could teach the world just one thing about science.

Saksida gives a wonderfully straightforward explanation of why the mind and brain are just different reflections of the same thing, but why it’s also useful to describe them separately at times.

I wish people understood that there is no mind/brain duality. Specifically, I wish people understood that there is no such thing as a purely psychological disorder. Every event in your psychological life, and therefore every psychological change, is reducible in theory to events and changes in your brain. We should therefore not judge people differently, according to whether they are considered to have a ‘psychological’ as opposed to a ‘neurological’ problem.

Of course, a lack of mind/brain split does not mean that we should abandon all talk of psychology. Psychology and neuroscience are two ways of studying the same thing, and both are essential for understanding the human condition.

She explains this, and more, while practising yoga in front of a log fire, serenely circled by candles. Needless to say, it’s a thoroughly calming experience.

Link to Dr Saksida on yoga and mind-brain non-duality (thanks Vicky!).