2008-03-28 Spike activity

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

PsychCentral tackles the recent internet addiction nonsense and asks What’s That Smell? It turns out it’s Internet Addiction Disorder in The News.

BBC Radio 4’s excellent history of ideas programme In Our Time has recently had editions on the philosopher Kierkegaard and early computationalist Ada Lovelace.

The BPS Research Digest explains a new study on frustrating tip-of-the-tongue states with bonus bit on how to overcome them.

Psychedelic artist extraordinaire, Alex Grey, is interviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle about his art and tripping (thanks Laurie!)

Dr Petra Boyton looks at international headlines linking anger, mental illness and Britain and notes that they’re based on a rather dodgy market research survey.

The limits of certainty in diagnosis and medicine are explored by The New York Times.

Neurophilosophy looks at a comparative study on the possible evolutionary development of a key language pathway in the brain.

Removing brain tumours can be tricky at the best of times, especially when the operation is on a 7-year-old-girl. The New York Times has an article and video on one such procedure.

Scientific American Mind looks at the effects of the surprisingly common occurrence of postpartum (post-pregnancy) depression beyond the individual effect on the mother.

In praise of booze. The New Humanist shings the praises of the world’s favourite fight enabler.

The New York Times has a review of the Willard hospital suitcase exhibition we featured the other day.

The application of shoe smell to epileptic seizures. No really. Neurocritic has some fantastic coverage of an upcoming scientific article on the phenomenon.

New Scientist reports that belly fat linked to increased risk for dementia. Not particularly startling, but emphasises the point that one of the best ways of keeping your brain healthy is to look after your cholesterol, blood pressure and cardiovascular fitness.

The six degrees of autism. Discover Magazine has a funky network analysis of schizophrenia, bipolar and autism comorbidity.

Wired reports that Pfizer computers have been hacked to send out, wait for it, v1agra spam.

A thorough debunking of determining personality from handwriting can be found on PsyBlog.

The New York Review of Books has a megareview of several books on happiness.

Sharp Brains has a fantastic article by neuroscientist Shannon Moffett on sleep, Tetris, memory and the brain.

Ray Kurzweil hacks body, mind, eternity

Wired has as article on the immortality-seeking inventor and transhumanist Ray ‘King Canute’ Kurzweil who is attempting to defeat death by bioengineering his body until he can upload his mind on a computer.

Transhumanism is a movement that attempts to extend the limits of human existence through technology, and one of the obvious, if not slightly fanciful, hurdles is to transcend death.

One of the key concepts in transhumanism is the singularity, supposedly the point where computers will ‘overtake’ the human brain in terms of their processing ability and, hence, intelligence as we know it will become completely transformed.

Accompanying the article about Kurzweil’s wide-eyed optimism is another article on the current science of his objectives which nicely illustrates where the conceptual gaps actually lie.

Many computer scientists take it on faith that one day machines will become conscious. Led by futurist Ray Kurzweil, proponents of the so-called strong-AI school believe that a sufficient number of digitally simulated neurons, running at a high enough speed, can awaken into awareness. Once computing speed reaches 1016 operations per second — roughly by 2020 — the trick will be simply to come up with an algorithm for the mind.

Which is a bit like saying “once we have the technology to travel to another galaxy, all we have to do is get there”.

Link to Wired article on Kurzweil.
Link to Wired article on the science of transhumanism.

Brain lamp

Designer Alexander Lervik created this wonderful table lamp based on a 3D reconstruction of his own brain scan.

MYBrain. The table lamp

A replica of the designer’s brain, originated from an MR scan at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

The image was processed through a 3D-printer, and became this unusual lamp shade design. Yes, it is bright.”

Although perhaps the coolest, this is not the first brain lamp we’ve come across.

Indeed, it would make a good accompaniment to the plasma brain lamp we featured back in early 2007.

Link to designer’s page for the brain lamp (via BoingBoing).

Lost in translation

ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone recently broadcast a programme that tackled the philosophy of translating between languages – discussing whether particular ideas are just harder to express in certain languages, and whether it is possible ever to tie a word to a definite meaning.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m fascinated by words which don’t translate across languages, especially when they related to mental states or psychology.

One of my favourites is the Portuguese word saudade, which, as far as I can work out, refers to a type of wistful or sombre yearning for something that you’ve experienced in the past, with the underlying feeling that the wished for thing might never return and that the feeling is all that you have.

The programme looks at these issues beyond the case of single words, asking whether some sorts of thinking are a product of the language, which possibly allows for concepts to be dealt with in a different manner.

One of the most striking differences lies between analytic philosophy, largely produced by native English speakers that entails legal or scientific style reasoning as applied to concepts, and continental philosophy, which often deals with criticising the concepts of language itself and relies much more on rhetoric and analogy.

The most famous continental philosopher are French (Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze etc), so this provides a useful starting point for discussing whether the different approaches to philosophy are just the result of culture, or stem from the tools of language itself.

The second part of the programme deals with W.V. Quine’s views on language, which suggest that there is no definite distinction between statements we assume are meaningful by definition (e.g. a bachelor is an unmarried man) and those which are only true with reference to the outside world (e.g. the sun is shining in London).

Interestingly, the programme avoids discussing Wittgenstein, who thought that all philosophical issues were really just difficulties brought about by language.

Anyway, a fascinating discussion of an important topic.

Link to The Philosopher’s Zone on the philosophy of language.

Demanding sex differences

Language Log has a great post looking at differences in empathy between males and females, and highlights a new study showing race differences as well.

The punchline is that it’s actually really hard to say whether either of these results reflect true differences because the samples tend to be unrepresentative of the population, and measures of empathy tend to be influenced by the social situation in which they’re taken.

They grab this paragraph from a review article on empathy measurement:

In general, sex differences in empathy were a function of the methods used to assess empathy. There was a large sex difference favoring women when the measure of empathy was self-report scales; moderate differences (favoring females) were found for reflexive crying and self-report measures in laboratory situations; and no sex differences were evident when the measure of empathy was either physiological or unobtrusive observations of nonverbal reactions to another’s emotional state.

This article is from way back in ’83, but more recent studies have tended to support the main idea that the overall difference between men and women in empathy is fairly negligible when behaviour, rather than self-report, is examined.

These sorts of social influences on experimental findings are known as ‘demand characteristics‘.

The classic example is an attractive female researcher asking men about penis size, but the effects can be quite subtle and only come to light in subsequent replications of the study (if at all!).

One of my favourite studies in this area looked at the supposed tendency for people who experience ‘sensory deprivation’ to have hallucinations and suffer severe emotional and cognitive impairment.

In 1964 psychologists Martin Orne and Karl Scheibe compared two groups of participants in a sensory deprivation experiment.

One group of participants was greeted by white coated researchers standing next to emergency equipment, were asked for their medical history and given serious looking tests, were told to report any strange sensory distortions and were informed that if they wanted to stop the experiment, they had to press a panic button.

The other group was greeted informally by researchers in casual clothes, weren’t given any medical checks, and were told to report their experiences freely as they occurred. To stop the experiment, they just had to knock on the window.

The actual sensory deprivation procedure was the same for both groups, but the participants given the formal medical introduction reported greater emotional disturbance, unusual experiences and mental distress. Furthermore, they tended to do much worse on the cognitive tests given afterwards.

While this didn’t ‘disprove’ any of the unpleasant effects of sensory deprivation, it did show that they are heavily mediated by expectation which is implicitly inferred from the testing situation.

Needless to say, this can affect any type of study, so scientists are always on the look out to see if it might be responsible for new findings.

Link to Language Log article on empathy, sex and race.
Link to study on demand characteristics and sensory deprivation.

Court imitates life in antipsychotic drug battle

The New York Times has an article which skilfully captures one of the central dilemmas in mental health: deciding whether the benefits of psychiatric drugs outweigh their side-effects for any individual patient.

The story centres on the ongoing court case where the state of Alaska are suing drug company Eli Lilly over claims that the multinational failed to inform professionals and the public about the side-effects of the antipsychotic drug olanzapine (Zyprexa) despite knowing about them for some time.

Olanzapine is a useful and effective drug for managing psychosis and, for some people, the only effective treatment for severe mental illness.

But, like the other newer generation drugs in this class, causes weight gain and significantly increases the risk for heart disease and diabetes. Like all other antipsychotics, it can also leave you feeling groggy and reduce your ability to experience pleasure (owing to the fact it affects the dopamine ‘reward’ system).

While mental health professionals tend to focus on the benefits of the drug for the person’s mental state, patients tend to focus on its negative effects on their health and enjoyment.

This differing focus is partly because the mental health professionals, on the whole, are not the ones who have to take the drugs and experience their side-effects, but also because psychosis often means the person does not realise their thinking has become disturbed, meaning they don’t see the point of being prescribed medication in the first place.

This dilemma was rather poignantly mirrored in the Alaska court house. While the Alaska vs Eli Lilly case was going on in one courtroom, in the next was a case concerning whether an obviously disturbed man should be compelled to take olanzapine by his hospital.

The NYT piece covers the two cases, drawing parallels between the individual dilemma and the landmark legal action, and captures the dilemma very succinctly.

Link to NYT article ‘One Drug, Two Faces’ (via Furious Seasons).
Link to Furious Seasons coverage of the Alaska vs Eli Lilly case.

Why do some people sleepwalk?

I just found this short-but-sweet explanation for why sleepwalking occurs by neurologist Antonio Oliviero. It appears in this month’s Scientific American Mind:

People can perform a variety of activities while asleep, from simply sitting up in bed to more complex behavior such as housecleaning or driving a car. Individuals in this trancelike state are difficult to rouse, and if awoken they are often confused and unaware of the events that have taken place. Sleepwalking most often occurs during childhood, perhaps because children spend more time in the “deep sleep” phase of slumber. Physical activity only happens during the non–rapid eye movement (NREM) cycle of deep sleep, which precedes the dreaming state of REM sleep.

Recently my team proposed a possible physiological mechanism underlying sleepwalking. During normal sleep the chemical messenger gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) acts as an inhibitor that stifles the activity of the brain’s motor system. In children the neurons that release this neurotransmitter are still developing and have not yet fully established a network of connections to keep motor activity under control. As a result, many kids have insufficient amounts of GABA, leaving their motor neurons capable of commanding the body to move even during sleep. In some, this inhibitory system may remain underdeveloped—or be rendered less effective by environmental factors—and sleepwalking can persist into adulthood.

As a bonus, the page also has an explanation of why we experience the painful ‘brain freeze’ sensation when we eat ice cream too quickly.

UPDATE: Thanks to Danielle for sending this fascinating snippet:

I used to have a VERY SEVERE sleepwalking problem. This past summer, I researched the use of GABA for mild anxiety. Although there was a great deal of question over whether it could cross the blood-brain barrier, I thought it was worth a try. It didn’t work for anxiety at all – but I was surprised to notice that it cured my sleepwalking, which was completely unexpected! Now that I know more about the connection between GABA, slow-wave sleep, & sleepwalking, it makes sense. I think there may be real treatment or research potential there, but I have no idea to whom I should report this. Maybe you can do something with it?

Link to SciAmMind sleepwalking and brain freeze explanations.