Champagne neuronova

Not a moment after I wonder whether Nature Neuroscience’s podcast has succumbed to rock n’ roll disaster, one of the NeuroPod team calls in to say all is well and the new edition is online.

Kerri from NeuroPod here. I’m happy to report that after a few months’ break, NeuroPod is back (April’s edition went live yesterday) and will be coming at you monthly for the rest of this year. They tried to make me go to rehab…and I said, neuro, neuro, neuro.

This month, we make some risky decisions, liken working memory to a digital camera, link stress and anxiety to genetics and explore the unfathomable world of the teenage brain.

I hope you enjoy the new show. We’re excited to be back, and very touched that we were missed.

Link to NeuroPod webpage.
mp3 of April NeuroPod.

Sweets with a neurotransmitter as an ingredient

We’ve featured various sorts of brain candy sweets before on Mind Hacks, but the Japanese sweets Aha! Brain take the concept a step further by including an actual neurotransmitter as an ingredient.

The lime flavour includes the neurotransmitter GABA, while other flavours have branched chain amino acids and something called forskolin in them instead.

All of which are important in brain functioning but whether actually eating them as sugar-coated candies will do you any good is anyone’s guess.

Link to description and brave first-person report!

Neuroscience of meditation and attention

This month’s Trends in Cognitive Sciences has a fantastic review article on the neuroscience of meditation – focusing on how the contemplative practice alters and sharpens the brain’s attention systems.

The full article is available online as a pdf, and discusses what cognitive science studies have told us about the short and long-term impact of meditation on the mind and brain.

Meditation is now being quite extensively studied by cognitive science owing to the clear effects it has on the brain, and on the increasing evidence for its benefit in mental health.

A recent review of ‘mindfulness’ meditation-based therapy found that although research is in its early stages and not all possibilities have been ruled out, there’s good evidence from the existing RCTs that it’s particularly good in preventing relapse in severe depression.

The Trends article, which largely focused on the neuroscience research, makes the distinction between two types of meditation: ‘focused attention’ meditation – that involves focusing on a particular thing and refocusing if you become distracted by thoughts or sensations; and ‘open monitoring’ meditation which involves nonreactively monitoring the content of experience and acting as almost a detached observer to feelings and mental events.

This is an excerpt where the authors discuss the experimental evidence for the long-term ‘open monitoring’ or OM meditation:

Long-term practice of OM meditation is also thought to result in enduring changes in mental and brain function. Specifically, because OM meditation fosters nonreactive awareness of the stream of experience without deliberate selection of a primary object, intensive practice can be expected to reduce the elaborative thinking that would be stimulated by evaluating or interpreting a selected object. In line with this idea, Slagter et al. recently found that three months of intensive OM meditation reduced elaborative processing of the first of two target stimuli (T1 and T2) presented in a rapid stream of distracters…

Because participants were not engaged in formal meditation during task performance, these results provide support for the idea that one effect of an intensive training in OM meditation might be reduction in the propensity to ‘get stuck’ on a target, as reflected in less elaborate stimulus processing and the development of efficient mechanisms to engage and then disengage from target stimuli in response to task demands. From the description in Box 2,we anticipate a similar improvement in the capacity to disengage from aversive emotional stimuli following OM training, enabling greater emotional flexibility.

Moreover, the article includes many other studies that have reported interesting effects. For example, highly experienced focused attention meditators need minimal effort to sustain attentional focus, while even short courses on meditation can improve attention and decrease stress.

Most of the techniques are taken from Buddhist meditation practices and I’m sure Buddhists are cracking a wry smile as cognitive science is just starting to catch on to what they’ve been noting for thousands of years.

As for the neuroscience, I’m sure the remarkably science-savvy Dalai Lama is fascinated as he’s held a number of conferences with leading researchers to discuss the the intersection between Buddhist practice and cognitive science.

Link to abstract of article.
pdf of full-text.

Neuro killed the radio star

The excellent Neuroanthropology has just had a brief round up of podcasts on neuroscience or anthropology so you can satisfy all your brain science and human diversity listening desires.

It’s a really comprehensive list (and the anthropology podcasts are completely new to me) so there’s likely to be something to discover even if you’re the most diligent podcast enthusiast.

However, Nature’s NeuroPod podcast is still eerily silent and has been since December. Has life on the road taken its toll? Has one of them gone into rehab? I think we should be told.

Link to Neuroanthropology’s podcast round up.

Eric Kandel on drugs, neurobiology and the unconscious

Neurophilosophy has found a new video interview with neurobiologist Eric Kandel who talks about everything from long-term memory to free will to the unconscious.

Essentially, it’s a series of short reveries and soundbites where Kandel gives his views on a series of topics.

Part of it is obviously PR for his company (which is trying to develop memory enhancing drugs), but it’s a good chance to get Kandel’s take on some core contemporary issues.

Plus we get to see his bowtie again. What more can you ask for?

Link to Kandel video interview.

Hearing voices with your head in the sand

UK TV station Channel 4 broadcast a docudrama last night called The Doctor Who Hears Voices, a fictionalised account of an apparently real-life situation where psychologist Rufus May (who played himself) treated a junior doctor who began hearing hallucinated voices.

I’ve not seen it yet, although should be interesting viewing as May is a UK clinical psychologist who was himself diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 18.

His story is an interesting journey in itself and he’s a valuable critic of the mental health system, even if you’re not fully in agreement with all of his views.

The reviews have largely been positive and the UK’s largest mental health charity Mind have sung it’s praises.

However, The Independent’s TV critic Brian Viner obviously didn’t like the programme, which is fair enough, but also manages to add some pretty appalling prejudice in his review:

May thinks that society should embrace mentally ill people, not shun them, an admirable – enough ambition that is slightly clouded by the stark statistic that 50 murders a year are committed by people with mental-health problems; 1,200 a year kill themselves.

It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that people with schizophrenia are at much greater risk of being victims of violence that perpetrators (one study found 14 times greater chance of being a victim of a violent crime that being arrested for one).

But I’m still slightly startled that this is used, as well as the shockingly high suicide rate, as something that might “cloud” an ambition not to shun people with mental health problems.

If a torrent of the programme turns online, I shall post a link to it so you can make your own mind up, or if you’d rather take the Viner route, you can just re-arrange your prejudices rather than do any serious consideration.

Link to Channel 4 info on film.

War psychiatry – in 100 words

Every month, the British Journal of Psychiatry has a 100 word summary of key issues in mental health and psychopathology. March’s edition had a fantastic summary of military psychiatry by consultant psychiatrist to the UK Army, Simon Wessely.

War is hell, but it can be a job–a strange job in which one voluntarily (these days) exposes oneself to the risk of physical and psychiatric injury. Our generation think we discovered post-traumatic stress disorder, but it is neither new, nor the commonest, mental health problem in the UK Armed Forces. That ‘honour’ goes to depression and alcohol. Are these always the result of going to war? No, things are rarely that simple. Can we treat them? Sometimes–but what makes people good soldiers makes them bad patients. Can we prevent them? Possibly–but only if we don’t send people to war.

As a follow-up to our recent post on Tim Crow’s ideas on schizophrenia, this month’s BJP has a 100 word summary, by Crow, where he does a remarkable job of getting the details of the genetics and neurobiology into succinct description of his theory.

Link to ‘War Psychiatry – in 100 words’.
Link to ‘Psychosis: the price Homo Sapiens pays for language ‚Äì in 100 words’.