Altered mates: drugs in science

This week’s Nature has an article about the illicit use of cognitive enhancing drugs by healthy people just wanting to push their limits, including working scientists.

These are the same drugs that have caused concern about their level of use among students, chiefly modafinil (Provigil) and methylphenidate (Ritalin), although other drugs such as Alzheimer’s medication donepezil (Aricept), non-amphetamine ADHD drug atomoxetine (Strattera) are also candidates.

The article argues that the use of these drugs by healthy people raises some new ethical questions that need to be addressed and particularly discusses their use by scientists.

The issue is hardly new, however, as scientists have been using chemical pick-me-ups as long as science has existed.

Mathematicians have been noted for their use of amphetamines (Paul Erdős being a famous example) and there are plenty of famous figures from other fields who have made use of drugs for tweaking their mood or mind.

William Stewart Halsted, the “father of American surgery” and founder of the surgery department at John Hopkins Medical School, was a long-term cocaine and morphine addict.

Psychologists and psychiatrists have had a long history of trying out drugs on themselves and expanding their consciousness with hallucinogens in attempts to understand how the mind and reality can become distorted.

As we’ve noted previously, many of the so-called ‘new’ ethical issues, apply equally well to past drugs and past situations.

Probably the only genuinely new aspect, is that there are virtually no long-term studies on these newer drugs, so it’s still not clear on what the long-term effects might be. Perhaps more scary than their use by consenting adults therefore, is their use on children.

Nevertheless, on this occasion Nature have set up an online forum to discuss the use of drugs by scientists, so you can join the debate yourself.

Link to Nature article ‘Professor’s little helper’.
Link to Nature forum ‘Would you boost your brain power?’.

Dog prozac wins dumbest moments in business prize

Fortune has just published it’s list of the year’s 101 Dumbest Moments in Business, and at number two comes drug company Eli Lilly, with dog Prozac.

Seemingly, dog depression is an unrecognised epidemic / untapped market that is just crying out for some pharmacological intervention.

Thank God. We’ve been so worried since Lucky dyed his hair jet black and started listening to the Smiths.

Eli Lilly wins FDA approval to put Prozac into chewable, beef-flavored pills to treat separation anxiety in dogs.

Link to Fortune second dumbest business moment of the year.

Encephalon 38 flies in

The 38th edition of psychology and neuroscience writing carnival Encephalon has just arrived online and this fortnight it’s ably hosted by Not Exactly Rocket Science.

A couple of my favourites include an excellent article (how did I miss it before?) from Pure Pedantry reviewing the evidence that show mental illness is a poor predictor of violence in light of recent shootings in the US, and another on the functions of the hippocampus from Memoirs of a Postgrad.

There’s a whole stack more in the same edition, so have a look through for the latest and greatest from the last two weeks.

Link to Encephalon 38.

The problem of believing in belief

Sam Harris is better known as a leading atheist, but he’s also completing a PhD in cognitive neuroscience and a forthcoming study by Harris is a flawed but important contribution to how we understand the neuropsychology of belief.

Harris and his colleagues asked participants to respond to a number of statements with buttons presses indicating that they either believed, disbelieved or were undecided about each proposition.

The participants were shown statements relating to mathematics, geography, word meaning, general knowledge, ethics, religion and their own life.

While they were doing this brain activity was measured by a fMRI scanner, with a view to finding out which areas of the brain were involved in ‘belief’ and ‘belief states’.

It’s a straightforward study and you may wonder why no-one has ever done it before. It’s possibly because, from what we know about belief, it’s not clear that this study tells us much more about belief rather than what happens when people respond to questions.

Belief is a concept that is used all the time in psychology but is a pain to define in a way that science would be happy with. If you’re not convinced Eric Schwitzgebel’s guide to the problem is about as good as you’re likely to read, but I’m going to give a quick run through of the most relevant issues here.

One of the main problems is that experimental neuropsychology relies on measuring brain and behaviour during activities, and there is no single activity that represents ‘believing’.

When do you believe Paris is the capital of France? Only when you think about it or all the time? Presumably, we believe it all the time as we don’t assume someone has stopped believing it when they think about something else or are unconscious, when asleep perhaps.

The above example treats belief as a proposition stored in memory (a semantic memory in psychology parlance), but you can easily respond to a belief question if you’ve never thought about a proposition before in your life.

Do you believe tigers wear pink pyjamas? Presumably you don’t, but it’s unlikely you’ve ever thought about this before. It’s an answer reconstructed from fragments of other information you have in memory, reasoning and ‘gut instinct’ to varying degrees.

Saying you believe something can work the same way, of course. You may never have thought about it before, but you can say you believe it.

Just these two examples show that saying you believe or disbelieve can involve retrieving a ‘fact’ from memory, or might involve any number of other mental processes to give an answer.

Furthermore, its not even clear that two people retrieving facts from memory are even thinking about the same thing.

Here’s another question. Do you believe snow is white? Imagine two people are asked this question. One believes snow is frozen water, the other believes it’s star dust.

Considering that each person believes that the subject is something completely different, are they answering the same belief question, or is one answering ‘I believe frozen water is white’ while the other is answering ‘I believe stardust is white’? Now scale that up to concepts like democracy or religion.

This is known as the atomism vs holism debate in philosophy and concerns whether we can ever consider belief is isolation (‘snow is white’), or whether we can only consider them in relation to other beliefs that might need to be accessed at the same time (what we believe a word represents, or, even, what we believe the about what we believe).

These issues are essential for neuropsychologists, because they predict different patterns of brain activity, even though the behaviour (e.g. responding ‘I believe’) is exactly the same.

The point of having so many topics in Harris study is that despite these issues, on average, there might be some brain differences involved in answering ‘believe’ or ‘disbelieve’ regardless of the topic, but the mental processes involved in answering these questions might be so diverse that it’s difficult to say whether the average brain activity actually describes ‘belief’ in any meaningful sense.

This doesn’t mean the study is worthless though, and in fact, it’s an essential step in the scientific study of belief.

Science tends to start big, obvious and practical, and work through objections, new ideas and problems over time with new experiments. This study is one of the early but essential, big, obvious and practical steps.

Interestingly, some philosophers (known as eliminative materialists) argue that the concept of belief is just one we’ve inherited from everyday or ‘folk psychology’ and because of the conceptual problems with it, we’ll eventually realise there are no distinct mind or brain process that can be coherently identified as ‘belief’.

Like the concept of ‘rooting for your team’, we’ll just realise its too broad to be scientifically useful and we’ll disregard the idea of ‘belief’ mechanisms in the brain in favour of a variety of better specified concepts that reliably map onto mind and brain processes.

Importantly, studies into the neuropsychology of belief, like this one, can help answer these questions, and eventually, they are likely to have profound implications for everything from lie detection to clinical medicine.

Link to full-text of Harris’s study.
Link to Schwitzgebel’s on belief for the Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
Link to write-up from Time.

Alcohol, the cause and solution to all of life’s problems

As the Christmas season is upon us, what better time to think about alcohol, aptly described by Homer Simpson as the “the cause and solution to all of life’s problems”.

The British Medical Journal has a wonderful article that tells you everything you wanted to know about alcohol (but were too drunk to ask) in one concise package.

It covers the effect of alcohol on the body and brain, and describes what affects how alcohol is absorbed into the body:

Rate of absorption of alcohol depends on several factors. It is quickest, for example, when alcohol is drunk on an empty stomach and the concentration of alcohol is 20-30%. Thus, sherry, with an alcohol concentration of about 20% increases the levels of alcohol in blood more rapidly than beer (3-8%), while spirits (40%) delay gastric emptying and inhibit absorption. Drinks aerated with carbon dioxide—for example, whisky and soda, and champagne—get into the system quicker. Food, and particularly carbohydrate, retards absorption: blood concentrations may not reach a quarter of those achieved on an empty stomach. The pleasurable effects of alcohol are best achieved with a meal or when alcohol is drunk diluted, in the case of spirits.

It also notes that blood alcohol level is affected by stage of the menstrual cycle in women. Apparently, it is highest premenstrually and at ovulation (evolutionary psychologists, start your engines).

Different effect are compared to the amount of alcohol in the blood stream, so it’s a really handy summary.

The BMJ also published a systematic review of hangover cures and preventions later in the year, and found, rather sadly, that:

No compelling evidence exists to suggest that any conventional or complementary intervention is effective for preventing or treating alcohol hangover. The most effective way to avoid the symptoms of alcohol induced hangover is to practise abstinence or moderation.


Link to BMJ article ‘ABC of Alcohol’.
Link to BMJ systematic review on hangover cures and preventions.

Cognitive dissonance reduction

Following on from my earlier post about the way psychologists look at the world, let me tell you a story which I think illustrates very well the tendency academic psychologists have for reductionism. It’s a story about a recent paper on the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, and about a discussion of that paper by a group of psychologists that I was lucky enough to be part of.

Cognitive Dissonance is a term which describes an uncomfortable feeling we experience when our actions and beliefs are contradictory. For example, we might believe that we are environmentally conscious and responsible citizen, but might take the action of flying to Spain for the weekend. Our beliefs about ourselves seem to be in contradiction with our actions. Leon Festinger, who proposed dissonance theory, suggested that in situations like this we are motivated to reduce dissonance by adjusting our beliefs to be in line with our actions.

Continue reading “Cognitive dissonance reduction”

Experiment with a virtual neuron

The Children’s Hospital Boston have created a fantastic ‘virtual neuron‘ which allows you to explore the basics of neural transmission with an interactive flash demo.

Strictly speaking, of course, it’s designed for children, but it’s remarkably good fun whatever your age.

Once you’ve got the demo window up, the options at the top of the screen allow you to choose different demonstrations, and the text below explains what’s happening.


Link to virtual neuron.