‘Miracle cure’ for dyslexia fails to make the grade

Today’s edition of Bad Science covers a so-called ‘miracle cure’ for dyslexia which has been persistently promoted in the UK media, despite numerous complaints upheld by media regulators, veiled threats of legal action against people who say it doesn’t work and five editors of a scientific journal resigning over the publication of a flawed study on the treatment.

Personally, I would have thought anyone promoting their ‘treatment’ under the name “miracle cure” is asking for trouble but apparently with enough celebrity endorsement you can get away with promoting your product without the need for irony (quite hard work in modern Britain, I can tell you).

The system was developed by paint millionaire Wynford Dore and involves various balancing and co-ordination exercises supposedly to strengthen the cerebellum, which Dore argues is functionally impaired in dyslexia.

There’s actually a fair amount of independent research on the role of the cerebellem in dyslexia but, sadly, the idea that exercises might help treat this has the sole drawback of not being supported by the scientific evidence.

Interestingly, it seems that the company went bankrupt yesterday and have just closed up shop. That might have been a result of charging £2,000 for the course.

Ben Goldacre has more on the whole sordid tale over at Bad Science.

Link to Bad Science on the Dore ‘miracle’ ‘cure’ for dyslexia.

Terry Pratchett, on the ropes

On the Ropes, BBC Radio 4’s programme about people in difficult situations, interviews author Terry Pratchett about his recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

In the first half of the interview, Pratchett talks about his early years as a writer and how he came to write the Discworld series and other novels.

In the latter half, he talks through the realisation that he had Alzheimer’s, from being tested for his initial relatively minor stroke, to being more comprehensively assessed for his ongoing cognitive difficulties.

He gives a fascinating first-person account of how he experiences the difficulties and the effects of the medication on his mind.

After his diagnosis, Pratchett was surprised at how little Alzheimer’s disease research was going on and donated half a million points pounds to scientific research.

Pratchett fans have set up Match It For Pratchett, a drive to match the Discworld author’s donation and boost degenerative brain research.

Link to On the Ropes interview with Terry Pratchett.
Link to Match It For Pratchett.

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’.