The brains of dead Russian geniuses

What makes a man a genius? Russian neuroscientists were pondering this exactly this question in the early 1900s and did exactly what seemed sensible at the time – they collected and dissected the brains of some of the greatest cultural figures in a huge collection called ‘The Pantheon of Brains’.

It’s a fascinating story told in a recent article published in the medical journal Brain. Amazingly, the last brain was only added in 1989.

Rather fittingly, the collection contains the brains of some of the Russia’s greatest psychologists and neuroscientists and has many curious aspects to it, such as the mysterious death of its founder. After death, his brain was immediately added to the collection.

In 1927, Bekhterev came up with a plan to organize ‘The Pantheon of Brains’ in Leningrad in order to collect elite brains. It was a severe irony of fate that precisely when the question about creating the Pantheon had been positively solved, the very initiator of this creation, Bekhterev, suddenly passed away. The circumstances are still questionable.

On December 17, 1927, the First All-Union Congress of Neuropathologists and Psychiatrists was held in Moscow. Bekhterev, along with L. S. Minor and G. I. Rossolimo, was elected as honourable chairmen of the congress. On December 23rd, the last day of the congress, Bekhterev gave a presentation during the afternoon session. In the evening, symptoms of a gastrointestinal disorder started and 24 hs later, Bekhterev died of (as officially stated) acute heart failure. Without any further post-mortem pathoanatomical investigation, his brain was removed, in accordance with his will, and his body was cremated the next day. However, the idea did not fade away.

In 1928, the neuroanatomical laboratory of Vogt and his Russian colleagues were reorganized into the Moscow Brain Research Institute, where the structured collecting and mapping of the brains of famous Russians started. Bekhterev did not see his plan come to fruition, but his own brain enriched the collection of the Moscow Institute (the weight of his brain was 1720g). The collection acquired the brains of Soviet politicians, famous writers, poets, musicians, etc.

It is not surprising that these included the brains of prominent Russian neuroscientists, such as neurologist, G.I. Rossolimo (1860–1928) Р1543g; physiologist, I.P. Pavlov (1849–1936) Р1517g; neurologist, M. B. Kroll (1879–1939) Р1520g; psychiatrist, P. B. Gannushkin (1875–1933) Р1495g; psychologist, L.S. Vygotsky (1896–1934). During the Soviet period, the work of the Moscow Brain Research Institute continued behind closed doors.

The collection was still expanding as recently as 1989, when it acquired the brain of A.D. Sakharov [A. D. Sakharov (1921–89) was an eminent Soviet nuclear physicist, dissident and human rights activist. He was an advocate of civil liberties and reforms in the Soviet Union. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975] — 1440g.

You gotta love the fact that the authors have added exactly how much each person’s brain weighed.

Sadly, the full text isn’t available online, although Brain does fully release articles after a set amount of time (a year I think) so it should eventually see the light.

Link to PubMed entry for article.

2008-05-23 Spike activity

PLoS Medicine has an eye-opening study on how the local price of alcohol is related to the level of violence in the area.

To the bunkers! Robot removes brain tumour.

BBC News Magazine has an interesting piece on ‘celebrities we love to hate’ with comments on the phenomenon of celebrity from a number of sociologists.

ABC Radio National’s excellent All in the Mind had a great edition on the science of happiness.

Petra Boyton looks at a recent study on how alcohol and drug use among European young people is deliberately and strategically linked to sexual behaviour.

An US Iraq veteran who wrote about his PTSD, sadly, kills himself.

BPS Research Digest picks up on interesting new study that found that women’s memories are more speech-filled than men’s.

Am I part of the cure, or am I part of the disease? Scientific American looks at the psychological health benefits of blogging, and on the flip side, whether it’s driven by pathology.

Those concerned about their blogging habits may want to diagnose themselves with a couple of light-hearted lists of social media related psychopathologies.

PsyBlog reports on a new study that found that online daters site spend seven times longer looking at other people’s profiles and sending emails than they did going on real dates.

Frontal Cortex has found a interesting video of someone’s speech function being temporarily ‘switched off’ by TMS.

Getting doctors to routinely enquire about domestic violence may help detect and prevent this vastly under-recognised problem, according to The New York Times.

Psychological Science has an accurate (if not slightly formulaic) article on ‘mirror neurons‘.

Researcher mull possible use of oxytocin to treat social phobia, reports BBC News.

Computer World asks the somewhat ridiculous question “Asperger’s and IT: Dark secret or open secret?”. Secret? How about “Asperger’s and IT: blessing or gift?”

One of the original internet psychologists, John Suler, has a posse… sorry, blog.

The Wall Street Journal reports “Research shows that people often do get a high from shopping – the brain releases chemicals such as dopamine or serotonin”. Oh gag me, please. Release us from these tired, misleading clich√©s.

Sage Journals are giving away free access on registration to all their academic journals until the end of May (thanks Patricio!).

BBC News reports on unlikely suggestions to bring in testing for brain doping in school students.

Could an Acid Trip Cure Your OCD? The use of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of mental illness is considered by Discover Magazine.

The New York Times has some brief audio interviews of people talking about their experience with ADHD.

Older brains may be slower because they’ve just got more information to sift through. The advantages and disadvantages of wisdom are considered by The New York Times.

The ironies of peer pressure: smokers give up in groups, reports BBC News.

Drugs, anthropology and embodied cognition. A lost weekend, or a collection of interesting links from Neuroanthropology. You decide.

Ecstasy’s impact

I’ve just noticed this review article that concisely reviews what we know about how the street drug ecstasy (MDMA) affects the function of the brain.

In terms of life-threatening physical damage, MDMA is a great deal safer than most other recreational drugs including alcohol and tobacco, but there is increasing evidence that it impacts on memory, and the effect seems to be related to dose.

In other words, the more ecstasy you take, the more likely memory problems will be worse.

The neuropsychology of ecstasy (MDMA) use: a quantitative review.

Hum Psychopharmacol. 2007 Oct;22(7):427-35.

Zakzanis KK, Campbell Z, Jovanovski D.

A growing number of empirical studies have found varying neuropsychological impairments associated with use of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) use. We set out to determine to what extent neuropsychological abilities are impaired in MDMA users. To do so, meta-analytical methods were used to determine the magnitude of neuropsychological impairment in MDMA users across pre-specified cognitive domains. We found that cognitive impairment secondary to recreational drug use may result in what might be described as small-to-medium effects across all cognitive domains with learning and memory being most impaired. We also found that total lifetime ingestion of MDMA appears to be negatively associated with performance on tasks ranging from attention and concentration to learning and memory. Implications and limitations of these findings are discussed.

Sadly, the full-text of the paper isn’t freely available online, but the main punchlines are in the summary.

Link to PubMed entry for paper.

What do you need to do to be considered an expert?

Sociologist Harry Collins is interviewed in American Scientist on his fascinating mission to find out what we need to do to be considered an expert and what different types of expertise exist.

Collins has spent many years studying how science works. Not how it is supposed to work, through experiments and falsification and gradual knowledge building, but how it actually works, through social networks, economics and traditions.

He studied physicists who research gravitational waves and realised he was able to have in-depth conversation with gravitational wave theorists even though he couldn’t run the equipments or do the maths. As most expertise plays out in conversation, how much of an expert was he?

Collins and his colleagues wanted to test the difference between tacit knowledge, what we can do without being able to explain, and explicit knowledge, so they devised some fascinating experiments to see if people could tell the difference.

One ingenious experiment involved testing whether people could tell the difference between a colour blind person and normally sighted version from just talking to them about colour. It turns out, they can’t.

Technical decision-making is often a matter of debating in committees and the like, so the way expertise works itself out in conversation was always going to be a central concern. We decided to use the forerunner of the “Turing test”‚Äîthe “imitation game”‚Äîto see whether one kind of expert could be distinguished from another in conversational tests. In the imitation game, a judge asks open-ended questions of, say, a full-blown expert and someone with interactional expertise only, without knowing who is who. The judge tries to tell the difference. In the best-known of the experiments we did in Cardiff, color-blind people were found to be indistinguishable from color perceivers, and we argued this was because the former had been immersed in the language of the latter all their lives.

As a result of this project, the research team have created a ‘periodic table’ of different types of expertise and how they manifest themselves.

Collins’ research is also discussed in an interview for this month’s Scientific American and many of his publications on expertise are available on his website.

Link to American Scientist interview.
Link to Scientific American interview.
Link to Collins’ expertise publications.

Don’t believe the neurohype

Wired magazine has just published a must-read article on the hyping of neuroimaging technology by companies wanting to sell brain scans on the deceptive premise that they can tell you something about your mood and personality, the effectiveness of adverts or whether you’re being truthful.

Here at Mind Hacks, we’ve covered several highlights in the ongoing parade of brain scan powered bullshit in the past (FKF Applied Research I’m looking at you) but this new article, by psychiatrist Daniel Carlat, is an engaging guide that tackles many of these issues in one go.

Neuroimaging studies that measure brain function are almost always done on large numbers of people and the results are usually only reliable when average differences between groups are compared. This makes it difficult to make sensible judgements about any one individual.

Brain scanning is also often reported as if it is revealing exactly which parts of the brain do what, but it typically only reports associations.

For example, an experiment might find that fear is associated with amygdala activation. But it’s impossible to say the reverse, that every time the amygdala is activated, the person is fearful.

Here’s an analogy. On average, people from New York may be more impatient than people from other cities.

If you predicted that all people from New York were impatient on the basis of this, you’d be grossly mistaken so many times that it would make your prediction invalid.

In fact, taking the average attributes of populations and applying them to individuals is stereotyping, and we avoid it because it is so often wrong as to cause us to misjudge people.

Alternatively, if you met an impatient person and therefore concluded that they must live in New York, you’d be equally inaccurate.

But this is essentially what these commercial brain scan companies are doing, but they are selling it as if it is reliably telling us about an individual person or an individual product because people tend to be blinded by the fact it just seems more scientific. After all, it’s neuroscience right?

Scientists and responsible clinicians will know about these shortcomings and make sure they don’t oversell their findings, but commercial companies are not selling you the data, they’re selling you a way of make you feel better about your insecurities, whether they be commercial concerns or health worries.

Interestingly, the Amen Clinic comes in for criticism which seems to specialise in pushing and overinterpreting SPECT scans to patients.

These guys were the subject of a similarly critical article in Salon the other week and were pulled up the the Neurocritic blog last year for suggesting political candidates should be brain scanned to see what sort of people they are.

If you want to be immune to this sort of nonsense, the Wired article looks at some of the current commercial offerings and how they’re trying to sell you short.

Link to article ‘Brain Scans as Mind Readers? Don’t Believe the Hype’.

Linguistic feathers ruffled by high tech new school

This week’s Nature has a feature article on how a new breed of computational linguists are attempting to understand the evolution of language by using high powered computer models. The traditionalists are not impressed, and accuse the new school of reducing language to numbers and oversimplifying to the point of meaninglessness.

It’s an old debate in the human sciences, and relates to whether aspects of human experience can be meaningfully quantified.

Some psychologists, for example, completely reject any scientific approach to thought and behaviour because they say it strips human experience of exactly what it means to be human – the lived subjective experience of life.

German intellectuals were struggling with similar issues in the 1890s but a related debate arises in consciousness studies in the form of the hard problem.

It wonders how we can explain the fact that our conscious experience – which we understand subjectively, can arise from the biological function of the brain – which we understand empirically and objectively.

While not all problems are quite so intractable, many issues in human science bump up against the maxim “not everything that can be measured is meaningful, and not everything that is meaningful can be measured”.

Whether a particular method gets the balance right is a constant source of arguments.

The Nature article notes that traditional linguists tend to use their interpretation of word meaning combined with historical records to track how language has developed over time, while newer methods code rough assumptions into numerical models and then compute likely patterns.

It is putting it mildly to say that many historical linguists find the evolutionary biologists working on language histories to be bungling interlopers who have no idea how to handle linguistic data. It is also an understatement to say that some of these interlopers feel that their critics are hidebound traditionalists working on a hopelessly unverifiable system of hunches, received wisdom and personal taste. And that’s just the mood between the historical linguists and the newcomers. Lots of the newcomers don’t like each other either. ‚ÄúWhy get excited about it when it is still so preliminary?‚Äù says Johanna Nichols, a historical linguist at the University of California, Berkeley. ‚ÄúWe are not impressed by a computational or mathematical paper per se. We have to see that it blends well with what is known by historical linguistics and really adds to our knowledge. Then we will be excited.‚Äù

Link to Nature article ‘The language barrier’.

Psychology’s greatest case studies

BBC Radio 4 have just broadcast a fantastic new radio series called Case Study that looks at some of the most influential, and most remarkable, case studies in the history of psychology.

The most recent edition was on the famous case of Phineas Gage, the 19th century American railway worker who had a 6 foot tamping iron shoot through his head during a railroad construction accident.

Gage’s job was to clear boulders by drilling holes in them, filling the hole with gunpowder, and tamping the charge down with a large iron bar.

If ever there was an accident waiting to happen, this was it, and lo and behold, the iron bar sparked on the rock, igniting the charge and firing the metal rod through his frontal lobes.

The rest, they say, is history. Or rather, is one of the histories, as there are many legends and stories surrounding his life which turn out to be less than reliable.

The programme looks at the known facts, the speculation, and the huge impact of the case on the development of neuroscience, which had never known a patient with such damage to the frontal lobes who had survived before.

The other programmes are equally as interesting, one edition covers the story of the ‘Wild Boy of Aveyron’ who largely grew up in the woods without any human contact, while another edition tackles the case of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was murdered apparently in full sight of bystanders who failed to intervene.

Needless to say, influential cases attract influential myths and psychologists’ favourite ‘fireside stories’ of what occurred don’t always match the known facts.

The series is presented by Claudia Hammond, who also presented the excellent Mind Changes series about influential psychologists, and who will be presenting the upcoming series of BBC All in the Mind.

Thanks to Tenyen for letting me know about the series, although I notice I was pre-empted by Neurophilosophy.

Link to programme on Phineas Gage.
Link to programme on The Wild Boy of Aveyron.
Link to programme to Kitty Genovese.

Crowded thoughts: the 70s boom in multiple personalities

Below is an excerpt from psychologist John Kihlstrom’s ¬≠2005 review article on dissociative disorders where he talks about the sudden ‘epidemic’ of multiple personality disorder, now know as DID, in the 1960s and 70s.

Dissociative Identity Disorder or DID is a diagnosis that describes where someone manifests various personalities, often of a diverse range of people – from children to adults of either sex.

It is controversial partly because diagnoses seemed to massively increase when two famous films on the disorder were popular.

Kihlstrom makes the interesting point that the increase in the number of people diagnosed with the disorder was also matched by an increase in the number of personalities each person seemed to have.

An interesting feature of the DID “epidemic” is an increase not just in the number of cases but also in the number of alter egos reported per case. In the classic literature, the vast majority of cases were of dual personality (Sutcliffe & Jones 1962, Taylor & Martin 1944). By contrast, most of the new cases compiled by Greaves (1980) presented at least three personalities; in two other series, the average number of alter egos was more than 13 (Kluft 1984, Putnam et al. 1986).

As Kenny (1986) noted, it was almost as if there were some kind of contest to determine who could have (or be) the patient with the most alter egos. The famous Eve, of course, appeared to have three personalities (Osgood & Luria 1954, Thigpen & Cleckley 1954). But when popular and professional interest in MPD was stimulated by the case of Sibyl, who was reported to possess 16 different personalities (Schreiber 1973), Eve replied with her own account of her illness, eventually claiming 22 (Sizemore & Huber 1988).

Despite the almost-infinite number of possible synaptic connections in the brain, one might say that the mind simply is not big enough to hold so many personalities. The proliferation of alter egos within cases, as well as the proliferation of cases, has been one of the factors leading to skepticism about the disorder itself.

In general, dissociative disorders are where one part of consciousness seems to be ‘split off’ or inaccessible to another.

For example, psychogenic amnesia or conversion disorder (‘hysteria’) are more common examples and hypnosis seems to reliably induce the phenomena in some people.

These are still some of the most mysterious processes in psychology and are fraught with controversy, particularly as they’re often linked to repressed memories from abuse or trauma.

This is one of the more difficult areas to study scientifically because it largely relies on self-report, and Kihlstrom notes there is still no convincing evidence that trauma or abuse leads to amnesia for the event.

Link to PubMed abstract of Kihlstrom’s review.
Link to full-text of pre-print.

Virtual Iraq used to treat post-war trauma in US vets

Continuing yesterday’s virtual reality theme, The New Yorker has an in-depth article about how US Iraq veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder are being treated in a VR simulation of battle situations.

The VR simulation is actually a modified version of Full Spectrum Warrior, a military tactics video game that was first developed to train US army soldiers before being released as a commercial product.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can be diagnosed if a person has experienced a potentially life threatening experience, and has intrusive traumatic memories, persistently increased arousal, and avoids reminders of the event.

Helping someone re-visit aspects of the original experience is an important part of the psychological therapy. This is relatively easy for someone who was traumatised in a traffic accident, but is considerably more difficult for a soldier who was traumatised in a distant and still-active war zone.

Virtual reality aims to safely simulate the environment and features of combat. The idea is that the intensity can be controlled by the therapist to manage exposure and to make sure the patient is never challenged with more anxiety than they can manage.

“This shows you why you need a trained therapist,” Rizzo said, turning off the machine and watching Aristone, who was bent over, with his hands on his knees, taking deep breaths. “Someone who knows exposure therapy, who knows how little things can set people off. You have to understand the patient. You have to know which stimuli to select. You’d never do what I just did—you’d never flood them. You have to know when to ramp up the challenges. Someone comes in and all they can do is sit in the Humvee, maybe with the sound of wind, and may have to spend a session or two just in that position. For P.T.S.D., it’s really intuitive. We provide a lot of options and put them into the hands of the clinician.”

One of these is Karen Perlman, a civilian psychologist who uses Virtual Iraq with patients at the Naval Medical Center San Diego. Perlman is an apple-cheeked, middle-aged native Californian with cascading brown hair, who, when I met her, was wearing an elegant short black dress with a pink-blue-and-purple tie-dyed silk scarf. At first glance, Perlman does not seem to be the sort of person a young marine would cotton to, but Rizzo says that she has a gift, and so far eight of the nine patients she has treated no longer meet the criteria for P.T.S.D. (This number does not account for those who dropped out.) “It’s a very collaborative relationship,” she told me in February, when Skip Rizzo and I drove down to San Diego. “I know which stimuli I’m going to add as the therapy progresses. I’m not going to overwhelm them. There are no surprises. I say, ‘I think you’re ready for the I.E.D. blast or for more airplanes.’ I’m not only adding more, but increasing the duration of each one. It’s intensive, but for P.T.S.D. you need a treatment that is intensive.”

The team have published some published some initial studies from the treatment which looks promising.

The project joins a growing number of studies that have found VR a promising method for treating trauma.

Link to New Yorker article ‘Virtual Iraq’.

The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover

The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover was an influential article by Lindsy Van Gelder that examined how a case of gender-bending identity faking from the early days of online chatrooms impacted on a virtual community.

I’d read it many years ago when it was published in the book, Computerization and Controversy, but have just found a scanned copy on the net as a <a href="”>pdf.

It’s entirely anecdotal but it’s a fascinating read (although has been scanned in sideways, so you’ll have to print it, or rotate it on screen – Acrobat users, you can right click to rotate documents).

What I hadn’t remembered was the identities of the person and the alter-ego:

I soon learned that [Talkin’ Lady’s] real name was Joan Sue Green, and that she was a New York neuropsychologist in her late twenties, who had been severely disfigured in a car accident that was the fault of a drunken driver. The accident had killed her boyfriend.

Joan had spent a year in hospital being treated for brain damage, which affected both her speech and her ability to walk. Mute, confined to a wheelchair, and frequently suffering from intense back and leg pain, Joan had been at first so embittered about her disabilities that she literally didn’t want to live.

Then her mentor, a former professor at John Hopkins, presented her with a computer, a modem, and a year’s subscription to CompuServe to be used specifically doing what Joan was doing – making friends online…

Over the next two years, she became a monumental on-line presence who served as both a support for other disabled women and as an inspiring stereotype-smasher to the able-bodied. Through her many intense friendships and (in some cases) her on-line romances, she changed the lives of dozens of women.

Thus it was a huge shock early this year when, through a complicated series of events, Joan was revealed as being not disabled at all. More to the point, Joan, in fact, was not a woman. She was really a man we’ll call Alex – a prominent New York psychiatrist in his early fifties who was engaged in a bizarre, all-consuming experiment to see what it felt like to be a female, and to experience the intimacy of female friendship.

I first came across the case in Sherry Turkle’s book on the psychology of online identity, Life on the Screen, where she described the story as already having “near-legendary status” in 1995 cyberculture.

There is now a growing body of scholarly work on the psychology of the internet but several episodes seem to have become part of the mythos of the subject, partly because they were used to illustrate psychological points before rigorous empirical work had been started.

Incidentally, I tried to look up the author, Lindsy Van Gelder, on the net but found few details. However, I did find this article from the 1980s where she defends her counter-culture credentials against the fact she owned an IBM PC! (a 5150 if I’m not mistaken).

pdf of Van Gelder’s ‘The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover’.

Decline of a Baghdad psychiatric hospital

The New York Times covers the disturbing state of the Ibn Rushid hospital, one of only two psychiatric hospitals in Baghdad that serves the entire population of 6 million.

The article is equally moving and disturbing as it describes how the local citizens are suffering the effects of war with little available assistance while the doctors resort to desperate measures to try and help.

The hospital’s fortunes have changed markedly during the occupation. Apparently in decline since the days of Saddam Hussein, a 2004 Psychiatric News article described how it had been refurbished after being looted by armed men shortly after the beginning of the war.

It now seems that a sharp decline is in progress once more as medication is increasingly scarce and ECT is being given on faulty equipment without anaesthetic or muscle relaxants.

One aspect of Iraq’s mental health system which has been consistently reported since the occupation is the fact that many Iraqi psychiatrists have left the country owing to violence and kidnapping that has targeted doctors.

Both major Baghdad hospital have been sacked by armed looters and have been affected by nearby fighting.

The NYT article is accompanied by a photo essay that documents a day in the life of the Ibn Rushid hospital.

Link to NYT article ‘War Takes Toll on Baghdad Psychiatric Hospital’.
Link to NYT photo essay.

Virtual paranoia

The Royal College of Psychiatrists podcast has a fascinating interview with psychologist Daniel Freeman who discusses his recent study that used virtual reality to study paranoid thinking.

Freeman has pioneered the use of VR in studying paranoia to try and understand how individual psychological differences contribute to suspiciousness and fear.

Of course, it’s possible to use real life environments to see how exposure relates to paranoid thinking. In fact, the same research group has studied how patients with paranoid delusions react to urban environments.

Those familiar with South East London might be interested to know that stressful urban stimulus in this experiment was a walk down Camberwell High Street (as a resident of Camberwell it is disconcerting, although not entirely surprising, to find out I’m living in an experimental condition used to induce paranoid reactions).

For a scientific point of view, one difficulty with using real-life environments to study paranoia is that they are constantly changing and reactive.

This latter point is important because people who are very paranoid might, for instance, behave in a manner that other people find strange and that attracts attention, or in a way that sparks hostility in others.

One way of getting round this is to expose all participants to a virtual reality environment programmed to be identical, so any differences in paranoid thinking between individuals are almost certainly related to how they interpret the situation and not how the environment reacts to them.

In this latest VR study, the environment was programmed to be neutral (a simulation of the London Underground carriage) but about a third of participants from the general population reported paranoid thoughts.

Some of the paranoid thoughts reported in the paper are really quite striking: “There was an aggressive person ‚Äì his intention was to intimidate me and make me feel uneasy” and “One guy looked pissed off and maybe one guy flicked the finger at me”.

I’ve actually been in the simulation, having taken part in a pilot study for a related project, and although it’s a bit clunky (as you can see from the picture) it’s remarkable how its difficult not to have human reactions to the ‘people’ on the train.

Interestingly, the study found that anxiety, worry and the tendency to have anomalous perceptual experiences were associated with paranoid thoughts, as was ‘cognitive inflexibility’ – the tendency to be unable to see alternative explanations for ideas or beliefs.

In the audio interview, Freeman discusses this latest study in more detail and how it relates to what we know about the psychology of paranoia.

UPDATE: Thanks to PsyBlog for alerting me to the fact that a streamed video from the Wellcome Trust has an interview with Dan Freeman and footage from the experiment itself.

Link to RCPsych to podcast on VR and paranoia study.
Link to abstract of study.

Survivor search robots to comfort disaster survivors

The St Petersburg Times has an article on the new generation of rescue robots that search for survivors after disasters. Their creator, engineer Robin Murphy, is designing robots that will aim to provide psychological comfort to trapped victims until the rescuers can reach them.

Murphy has been designing and deploying rescue robots for many years, assisting the rescue teams after the World Trade Centre attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the Utah mine disaster to name but a few.

Recognising the need to alleviate the psychological suffering of trapped survivors, she’s just won a $500,000 grant from Microsoft to develop robots that attempt to comfort the people they reach.

The Survivor Buddy would act as an emergency companion to people stuck in the crossfire of snipers or under the rubble of an earthquake-ravaged building like the ones now littering China.

She envisions a robot that plays soothing music to trapped victims and features a monitor showing the faces of loved ones and rescuers trying to reach them. It will deliver water and transmit a victim’s vital signs to doctors. And it should be friendly, she said.

Link to The St Petersburg Times on Survivor Buddy (via AI&Robots).

The philosophy of suicide

The most recent edition of ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone discussed the philosophy of suicide, looking at how our concepts of self-killing have changed throughout history and whether there is any such thing as a rational reason for ending our own lives.

The philosopher Albert Camus famously stated that “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide”, something that surely struck Socrates as he killed himself by drinking hemlock.

Suicide in its many forms has inspired everything from condemnation to romanticisation, most focusing on the morality of taking one’s own life and whether it can be justified as a reasonable option.

The programme touches on many of these issues and I was also interested to see a link from the page to an entry on suicide from the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Link to Philosopher’s Zone on suicide with audio and transcript.
Link to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on suicide.

How neurotech will change the world, one brain at a time

High end business magazine Condé Nast Portfolio has a feature article on the latest developments in the 120 billion dollar neurotech industry that aims to develop drugs and devices to cure diseases and optimise our brains.

The article takes a broad view of the industry, but also highlights a few areas which are looking hot and gives a guide to the sort of business thinking that motivates both the neurotech giants and the fledgling startups.

It seems the industry is currently a high stakes, high risk investment prospect as the majority of companies do not make money, so investors are betting long-term or hoping they’re backing a blockbuster.

The piece also mentions the work of Zack Lynch of the neurotech industry group NIO, who in partnership with his co-director and wife Casey Lynch, seems to have been lobbying the US government for significant support for the sector:

The couple’s new push is to get more federal dollars channeled toward the industry. Zack has been traveling back and forth to Washington, sometimes taking along neurotech C.E.O.’s, to promote a $1 billion “national neurotechnology initiative” that Representative Patrick Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat, recently announced he will introduce in Congress. The legislation asks the federal government to spend $200 million a year for five years on neurotech, including $30 million for the Food and Drug Administration to train more experts, $80 million for the National Institutes of Health to coordinate the neuroresearch efforts that are now run by 16 different institutes, and $75 million to increase small-business grants for neurotech companies.

One issue the article touches on is the deregulation of the industry so they can develop pharmaceuticals for cognitive enhancement of healthy people without having to get their medication licensed for a specific medical disorder.

While some remain suitably demure about the possibilities (at least in public), this is obviously the neurotech holy grail and is undoubtedly high on the long-term goals of the industry.

The article also has a couple of fantastic interactive features accompanying it – one on drugs and the other on implants. Also check the right-hand column for a series of related articles from the same publication.

Link to Cond√© Nast Portfolio article ‘The Ultimate Cure’ (via BrainWaves).

Pharmaceutical product placement rife in TV shows

Treatment Online reviews some recent research showing that there is an increasing trend for pharmaceutical drug brand names to appear in prime-time TV shows in what looks increasingly like widespread product placement advertising.

Unsurprisingly, the main culprits tend to be popular medical shows, where the rate of pharmaceutical name-dropping seems to be increasing.

You might think that drug brand names are just being mentioned so the shows can be realistic and use the names of real medications. But it is possible to mention drugs without mentioning brand names, and this is probably more more realistic.

Medical drugs have two common names. One is the generic name which refers to the compound, one is the brand name, which refers to a specific drug company’s version.

For example, aspirin is a generic drug often sold under the name Anadin. Fluoxetine is the generic drug often sold under the name Prozac.

So, there’s not really any particular reason for TV shows to use brand names (in fact, doctors more commonly use the generic names). But despite this, the trend is growing and there is evidence that some of the name dropping is actually paid advertising through the back door [insert your own suppository joke here].

Industry watchdog Nielsen Product Placement notes that the number of casual references to name-brand pharmaceuticals is higher than ever before and continues to rise with each new TV season. Medical shows in particular lend themselves to this form of non-advertising, and they are among the most popular prime-time programs. Shows like “House,” “Scrubs,” and “Grey’s Anatomy” routinely feature medical environments where sexy doctors and nurses drop references to brand-name drugs in settings both private and professional.

Studies reveal that the authority granted to these characters leaves viewers less likely to notice or question their implied endorsements of the products at hand – and, by the very nature of the fiction, a TV doctor recommending Vicodin is not as overbearing an advocate as the same character might be when marveling over the many great features of his brand-new Hummer.

Some companies actually admit to negotiating placement deals despite the industrywide contention that the vast majority of these references do not fulfill any contract. While these placements are not illegal, necessary federal oversight remains very poor if it exists at all.

Link to Treatment Online on drug company product placement.