Blue jean brain

Artist Lee Pirozzi creates wonderful three-dimensional fabric brains and neuroanatomical structures.

The piece on the left is called ‘Blue Jean Brain II’.

Pirozzi’s portfolio also describes a few of the pieces like so:

…in “In Search of the Perfect Blue Jeans,” denim, sequins, and satin form the textured and nuanced surfaces of the human brain, while in “Amygdala of Terror,” a snakelike coil appears affixed to the brain itself.

The pieces make a lovely complement to The Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art which displays the work of neuroscientists who carefully depict their favourite subject through needlecraft.

Link to Lee Pirozzi’s fabric brain sculptures (thanks mirbrewer!).
Link to The Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art.

No holds barred neuroscience interviews

The scientific journal Molecular Interventions has a whole load of open-access articles that contain interviews with leading molecular biologists, including several with notable neuroscientists.

As you might expect from a scientific journal (which rarely include interviews) the exchanges are in-depth and gloriously geeky in places.

I haven’t found a search term to cleanly pull out all the interviews, but so far I’ve found discussions with:

Kay Redfield Jamison: ‘The Personal and Professional: Of One Mind’.
David Colquhoun: ‘An Uncommon Scientist with a Lot of Common Sense’.
Geoffrey Burnstock: ‘Most highly cited scientist’.
Floyd Bloom: ‘Neuroscience was not even a word’.
Candace Pert: ‘Paradigms from Neuroscience: When Shift Happens’.
Nora Volkow: ‘Motivated Neuroscientist’.
Sol Snyder: ‘Research as an Art Form’.
Eric Kandel: ‘The future of memory’.

I’ve not read them all, but there’s some real gems in there from some neuroscience heroes, so well-worth a read through.

The birth of Alzheimer’s disease

Neurophilosophy has just published another wonderfully illustrated article on a key moment in neuroscience: this one focuses on Alois Alzheimer, one of the first to discover the major brain changes in Alzheimer’s disease, and Auguste Deter, the middle aged woman in whom he first detected the pathology now inextricably linked to the disorder.

When in his care, Alzheimer carefully recorded Deter’s clinical symptoms of memory loss, impaired language and confusion, and later, when she died, he looked carefully at her brain during post-mortem.

Using a recently developed staining technique he found abnormal clumps of protein, peppered throughout the brain – which are now known to be amyloid plaques – one of the most recognisable features of the disease.

The article makes the interesting point that Alzheimer did not in fact discover this, but that the name has stuck because the head of the research group, Emil Kraepelin, highlighted the findings under the name ‘Alzheimer’s disease’ to promote the institution.

Although well known in his own right, it is true that Kraepelin gained much reflected glory from promoting the work of Alzheimer.

Unfortunately, Kraeplin’s reputation was to be tarnished by his other all-together less distinguished prot√©g√©, Ernst R√ºdin.

Rüdin was hired by Kraepelin to study the genetics of mental illness and found evidence of how mental instability could be inherited.

Later, Rüdin became a key player in drafting the Nazi Law to Prevent Hereditarily Sick Offspring which resulted in the forcible sterilisation of thousands of people with physical disabilities, drug addiction, and mental and neurological disorders.

This was the beginning of what was later to become Action T4 in which thousands upon thousands of people with supposed ‘hereditary defects’ were systematically killed by the Nazis.

Alzheimer’s contribution to neuroscience is thankfully notable for the right reasons, and the Neurophilosophy article is a great tour through his work, notes and original drawings.

Link to Neurophilosophy on ‘Alois Alzheimer’s first case’.

LSD psychotherapy artwork

Someone’s posted examples of artwork created by patients that were undergoing LSD psychotherapy when it was originally trialled by Stanislav Grof, before research in this area was suspended by panicked world governments when the drug became widely used.

The images are from Grof’s book LSD Psychotherapy, and range from the whimsical, to the abstract, to the terrifying.

The early explorations of using psychedelic drugs in psychotherapy seemed promising but were over far too soon to give a definite answer of whether they helped overcome any mental health or behavioural problems.

It’s only very recently that scientific research into this area has re-started, largely due to the careful work of MAPS – the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

Link to artwork of patients undergoing LSD psychotherapy.

Is the developing world better for schizophrenia?

One of the most commonly repeated facts about schizophrenia is that people diagnosed with the condition tend to do better in developing countries, rather than in rich Western countries. A new study has reviewed outcome studies from low and middle-income countries across the world and found the picture just isn’t that clear.

The original finding that people with the diagnosis do better in developing countries was from three World Health Organisation studies.

The recent review has criticised the previous studies for not adequately dealing with some important factors – like mortality.

It’s important to account for deaths in outcome studies, because they could skew the results, if not counted properly, to make outcome look better.

For example, three people with schizophrenia are assessed at the beginning of the study, a year later they are re-assessed, but sadly, one has died. Of the other two, one has improved and one got worse.

Death is, perhaps, the worst possible outcome, and since schizophrenia involves a high risk of suicide and is associated with a lower life expectancy, it is more likely in those affected.

If this isn’t noted, however, the follow-up results might suggest that out of the two remaining, half improved, and half got worse.

In fact, the outcome was worse in two thirds, as one got worse and one died, and only one third improved.

So not being able to account for deaths may make the picture look rosier than it is.

The study looked at these these factors, as well as other more socially relevant effects, such as on marriage, social relationships and employment – rather than purely examining clinical symptoms. It also investigated whether outcomes were different for males and females.

The conclusions of the study suggest that the picture is complex and dependent on many different influences, as it varies greatly between countries:

First, there appears to be great variation in clinical outcomes and patterns of course. Whereas, some studies in India strongly support the “better prognosis” hypothesis outcomes do not appear to be nearly as positive in Brazil and China. Additionally, limited evidence suggests that gender effects vary cross-nationally.

Second, similar patterns are found in the domains of disability and social functioning: good in most studies in India and Indonesia, but poorer in Nigeria, and much poorer in a cohort of untreated persons in Chennai, India. Social functioning by gender also varied: in the MLS [Madras Longitudinal Study], women had high levels, while in Nigeria women fared poorly. Outcomes in occupational and marital status also varied. A more important point, however, is that status in these 2 domains must be interpreted in the context of sociocultural norms and assessed, at least to some degree, qualitatively. Viewed from this perspective, the data in table 7 suggest that rates of marriage for people with schizophrenia are relatively low and rates of divorce/separation are high.

The study was conducted by a team of four researchers, from America, the UK, India and Nigeria and is published in November’s Schizophrenia Bulletin as an open-access paper, so the full text is freely available online.

Link to full text of study.

Help with research on the neuropsychology of hypnosis

I’m currently involved with a research group investigating the neural basis of hypnosis and dissociative disorders and, if you live in London, we’d like to invite you to take part in our research.

Dissociative disorders are where people lose abilities that they normally have, such as limb movement, in the absence of underlying neurological illness.

However, for this stage of the research we’re inviting healthy participants to complete some short questionnaires and take a short test that measures how hypnotisable you are.

This will take place with group of other people and everyone gets an £8 volunteer fee for their time.

We’re running sessions at the Institute of Psychiatry in Camberwell, on the following dates:

2pm, Saturday 10th November
2pm, Saturday 17th November
2pm, Saturday 24th November

After taking part we may invite you to participate in further parts of the study at another time (such as a brain scan or some measures of memory or attention) but you are under no obligation to do so.

Each part is separate, and, if you are invited, volunteering for one part doesn’t mean you have to take part in any others.

Like all good scientific research, the study has been fully reviewed and approved by the local research ethics committee.

If you’re interested in finding out more, there’s further information on our study webpage where you can also contact me, ask questions, get sent the full information sheet, or volunteer for one of the sessions.

Link to study info and contact details.
Link to webpage to email me.

Charley says…

Filmmaker Jo McGinley has created a brief and adorable film about her cat, Charley, who has cerebellar hypoplasia – a disorder in the development of the cerebellum that causes marked movement and coordination problems.

Cerebellar hypoplasia also occurs in humans and can lead to similar movement difficulties.

The complete function of the cerebellum is poorly understood, but it is well known that it is a key part of the brain’s movement system.

Damage to the cerebellum can affect coordination and timing, and the effect of alcohol on movement may, at least in part, be explained by its effect on the cerebellum.

‘Hypolasia’ means ‘incomplete growth’ and so the ‘cerebellar hypoplasia’ refers to the physical growth problem with this part of the brain.

The movement problem associated with this, as can be seen in Charley, is known as ‘cerebellar ataxia’.

‘Ataxia’ literally means ‘without order’ and refers to the coordination of muscles. So, ‘cerebellar ataxia’ refers to a disordered movement of muscles caused by problems with the cerebellum.

The film of Charley is wonderfully endearing, and it makes the point that kittens are often destroyed if they have this problem, despite the fact that they are in no pain, need no special care, and have a normal life span.

Link to film ‘This is Charley’

A handbag (shaped like a brain) is a girl’s best friend

Designer Jun Takashi has created a high fashion handbag, shaped like a brain. Why? You ask. Why not? I answer.

At this point I would like to make it clear that the idea that we only use 10% of our handbag is a myth.

Scientific studies have found that all of the handbag is in constant use, although some parts may be more active than others.

Link to Jun Takashi’s designer brain handbag (via BB).

Black humour perks up the inevitable

Time magazine has a short article on an interesting finding: after thinking about their own death, participants in a psychology study were more likely to respond unconsciously in ways that suggested a boost in mood.

The study was led by psychologist Nathan DeWall and asked one group of students to think about a painful dental procedure, and another about their own death.

The participants were then asked to complete questionnaires that rated their mood. In terms of their conscious reporting, there was no difference between the groups.

However, when asked to do some simple tasks that are known to be affected by unconscious emotional biases, the group who had thought about death showed a consistently positive effect:

Students in the death-and-dying group, it turns out, had all gone to their happy place ‚Äî at least in their unconscious. There was no difference in scores between the groups on the explicit tests of emotion and affect. But in the implicit tests of nonconscious emotion ‚Äî the wordplay ‚Äî researchers found that the students who were preoccupied with death tended to generate significantly more positive-emotion words and word matches than the dental-pain group. DeWall thinks this mental coping response kicks in immediately when confronted with a serious psychological threat. In subsequent research, he has analyzed the content of the volunteers’ death essays and found that they’re sprinkled with positive words. “When you ask people, ‘Describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you,'” says DeWall, “people will report fear and contempt, but also happiness that ‘I’m going to see my grandmother’ and joy that ‘I’m going to be with God.'”

I would like to think that this will come as welcome news to the people who protested against a funeral parlour being built near their homes because of concerns about a ‘negative psychological impact’, although, I suspect it will be of little comfort.

Experimental evidence is remarkably unconvincing to some.

It reminds me of when Tom Gilovich did an analysis of the ‘hot hand’ in professional basketball (where players who have scored several points are supposedly ‘on a run’). His study [pdf], published in the journal Cognitive Psychology, found that the effect was just the misperception of random variation.

When asked about the research, Red Auerbach, coach of the Boston Celtics, reportedly responded “Who is this guy? So he makes a study. I couldn’t care less”.

Another example of the fly of empirical evidence being crushed against the windscreen of self-confidence. Well, at least Stephen Colbert would be proud.

Link to Time article ‘Are We Happier Facing Death?’.

Any good direction

I found this quote from Charles Dickens on the first page of Samuel Barondes’ book Mood Genes. It is both sage advice and reassuringly optimistic.

To lighten the affliction of insanity by all human means is not to restore the greatest of divine gifts; and those who devote themselves to the task do not pretend that it is… Nevertheless, reader, if you can do a little in any good direction – do it. It will be much, some day.

Dickens himself was no stranger to mental distress. Despite being recognised as one of the greatest writers of his generation, he reportedly suffered severe bouts of depression.

Unfortunately, Barondes’ book doesn’t mention the source of the quote, so if anyone knows which of Dickens’ works it comes from, do let me know.

UPDATE: An answer gratefully received from crabbydad. Grabbed from the comments:

Apparently, the quote is from “A Curious Dance Round a Curious Tree,” an essay written by Dickens after a visit to St. Luke’s hospital, a hospital for the “impoverished mentally ill.” You can find more info here.

As well as the commentary linked to above, the full text of Dickens’ article is also available online.

2007-11-02 Spike activity

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

The Holy Grail of memory: researchers identify brain waves that distinguish false memories from real ones. The downside, you need to have your skull opened and electrodes implanted into your brain. Full paper: pdf.

ABC Radio has science teacher Dr Berry Billingsley discussing her life with Harry, her nine-year-old son who has Asperger’s syndrome.

PsyBlog tackles a bizarre but charming experiment on tickling.

The NYT reviews Sacks’s new book Musicophilia.

Brain Dynamics Underlying the Nonlinear Threshold for Access to Consciousness. Rooaaarrrr!! Hardcore consciousness research in PLoS Biology.

Wired go inside the world’s only plant-intelligence lab. [Roll your own George Bush joke here].

Video of some of the most fundamental (and smallest) aspects of learning in the brain are captured on video and explained by Pure Pedantry.

A couple on fear:
* Neurophilosophy examines the neurobiology of fear.
* That Nearly Scared Me to Death! Let’s Do It Again. Wired looks at why we can enjoy being frightened.

Salon discusses what psychology tells us about our seemingly inbuilt prejudices and how to overcome them.

A cool new visual illusion is discovered by Mixing Memory.

Can you use your ‘gut instinct‘ to find things faster? Cognitive Daily investigates and sports the spiffy new ‘blogging on peer review research’ icon.

Eric Schwitzgebel has a short, sweet and endearingly appropriate epitaph for a philosopher.

Psychosis in David Lynch’s Inland Empire

The Psychologist has just made an article available that looks at the parallels between the most recent David Lynch film, Inland Empire, and what we know of the psychology of psychosis.

The article looks at some of the proposed pathologies of psychosis, drawn from cognitive science, and suggests how these are represented in Lynch’s latest movie.

Paranoia comes with an inherent sense of personal threat and concomitant fear. Inland Empire’s dark and chilling world is produced in part by David Lynch’s use of story. While fear is generated with genuinely unsettling imagery and dark shadowy lighting, it also comes from the carefully managed attrition of any recognisable storyline. The audience, who have been led through the early stages of the plot with some of the conventional devices of storytelling (coherent dialogue, linear chronology) are suddenly thrown into a world of unfamiliar film cuts, unexplained locations and wordless acting. We are forced to jump to our own conclusions and build what narrative we will from scant concrete evidence as to events. Our sense of sense itself forces us to put something together and, given the presence of ominous emotions and apparent malice, what we put together is a paranoid and terrifying vision of the intentions of the characters in the film and even the world we inhabit.

Lynch’s hallucinatory style certainly suggests altered realities and this is not the first time that it has been linked with mind-being reality distortion, as countless interpretations of Mulholland Drive testify.

Link to article ‘David Lynch and psychosis’.