Man, controller of the neuroverse

The medical journal Neurosurgery is celebrating its 30 year anniversary and I’ve just noticed that their February edition had this wonderful cover.

It’s the detail from a painting by Mexican artist Diego Rivera called Man, Controller of the Universe. A beautiful image, although never let it be said that our neurosurgical friends miss an opportunity to express their grandiosity.

Nevertheless, the edition contains a large number of wonderful Rivera prints in between article such as ‘Ballistics for the Neurosurgeon’, ‘A New Multipurpose Ventriculoscope’ and ‘Enchanced Tumor Growth Elicited by L-Type Amino Acid Transporter 1 in Human Malignant Glioma Cells’.

It makes for slightly surreal but completely delightful read.

The journal has a tradition of having an article by a neurosurgeon commenting on the cover image, which is often a great article in itself and is usually has nothing directly to do with neuroscience.

Sadly, the journal is closed access, but their free sample issue has an excellent ‘Cover Comment’ article [pdf] on Herman Melville and his classic novel Moby Dick.

Link to image of entire painting.
pdf of Neurosurgery article on Moby Dick.

2008-05-02 Spike activity

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

Interesting Scientific American article looks at the how infections can increase risk for mental illness but suffers from some rather irresponsible and sensational statements in the summaries.

A classic study on how children learn the world isn’t flat, covered by PsyBlog.

Science Daily reports on research suggesting that the key language areas of the brain ‘shift’ as we age.

Some wonderful examples of 19th century Japanese brain art are discovered by In Two Minds.

Neuroscientifically Challenged has an excellent short piece on a brain scanning study on social hierarchy in humans.

The excellent Dana magazine Cerebrum has an article on the link between the heart and brain function. Healthy heart, healthy brain.

The Neuroethics and Law Blog rounds up some recent reviews of neuroethics books.

BBC News has a remarkably good article on ‘sex addiction‘ and why it’s not an addiction, even if it’s a problem.

A coooool visual illusion is discovered by Cognitive Daily.

Booze reduces the brain response to fearful faces finds study reported by Science News who seem to have had a few when they wrote the first rather over-generalised sentence.

The Frontal Cortex has a thoughtful piece on madness and creativity.

Female voices sound sexier when they’re at the peak of fertility in the menstrual cycle, reports New Scientist.

The latest research on deep brain stimulation for treatment resistant depression is covered by PsychCentral.

Scientific American has an article on whether age-related cognitive decline may be caused by a breakdown in connections between different brain systems.

The anthropology of Grand Theft Auto! A thinly veiled excuse to play video games at work leads to an interesting article on why Liberty City is such as success.

Furious Seasons on why new data reveals that the famously corrupt Paxil Study 329 is actually worse than we thought. Hard as that is to believe.

McGill University has some funky neuroscience images (thanks Sandra!).

Unix, Lacanian psychoanalysis, anarchy, David Cronenberg, the unconscious and Stanislaw Lem – together at last!

BPS Research Digest covers a curious debate over whether psychotherapy is over-hyped where a frankly delusional psychopharmacologist ignores evidence and seemingly makes up figures about levels of therapist abuse. He references his own paper, which quotes a different figure.

Bringing sexy back (side)

Last week, we featured a sexy serotonin tattoo, and this week, thanks to the work of the same diligent correspondent (thanks Sandra!), we feature a new brain tattoo that has a markedly different effect, despite the fact it resides in the same location.

You really need to click on the image and go to the full size picture to get the maximum effect.

Interestingly, the discussion in the comments note that it might be part of a recent trend for parents to have their children’s pictures as tattoos (although this is a bit too direct if you ask me).

Either way, I’d be sitting the child down and having some serious words about the relative sizes of cortical and subcortical structures in the normal adult brain before letting them them loose on my tattoo design.

Link to arse residing brain tattoo from another dimension.

A rattle around Harvard’s baby brain lab

The Telegraph has an article and video on the Harvard ‘baby brain lab’ and some of its recent discoveries which are helping us understand how the mind and brain develops through the earliest months of life.

The research team is otherwise known as the Laboratory for Developmental Studies and is headed up by developmental psychologist Elizabeth Spelke who’s interviewed on the video.

You would think babies are difficult to test with behavioural experiments because they are can’t even stick to simple procedures, so developmental psychologists have created a task that takes advantage of the fact that infants stare at things when they’re new or interesting, but get bored and stop looking at the things they’ve seen before.

Let’s say you wanted to test whether newborn babies can tell the difference between familiar and unfamiliar people when they see their faces from different angles.

You show a picture of a person’s face, facing directly forward, until the infant becomes bored and starts looking away.

Then you flash up two new pictures both taken at the same angle, one of the original person and one of a new person. You then measure how long the infant looks at each face.

Because infants look at new or different things for longer, they would spend more time looking at the unfamiliar face if they can genuinely tell the difference. If they both seem the same to the infant, they should look at both equally, on average.

In fact, this was a recent study done on 1 and 2-day old babies, and it turns out they can tell the difference between a familiar face and a new face when the change in viewing angle isn’t too great.

Variations on this simple procedure have taught us a great deal about what babies can perceive, understand or expect, as well as how their brains function when they’re doing these tasks.

What is often most surprising is what babies can do within their first few days or birth – such as recognise faces, as in the study above – but the debate about how much these sorts of skills are due to innate knowledge, or innate rapid learning mechanisms, are still raging:

Newborns have no idea what they look like, yet they enter the world equipped with a basic understand of what a face is. They know that the pink blob in the middle of a face is a tongue, and that they can poke out their own tiny tongue in just the same way. This was crucial ammunition for an intellectual war that still rages over whether we emerge from the womb as general-purpose learning machines that soak up details of our environments, or, as Spelke believes, born ‘precocious’, so we can immediately do things that are key to survival (just as newly-hatched chicks and fish can immediately do things such as navigate, or find and recognise food).

Spelke has crossed swords with Professor Mark Johnson of Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development in London, whose studies of infant brains stretch back nearly two decades. He points out that the four and six month olds at Spelkeland have hundreds of hours of experience in categorising the world, which challenges Spelke’s ‘core knowledge’ theory. He believes that we enter the world with ‘soft biases to attend to different aspects of the environment, and to learn about the world in particular ways’.

His colleague, Prof Annette Karmiloff-Smith, who once worked with Piaget, praises some of the Spelkeland work (‘Liz has done some great behavioural experiments’) but adds, ‘Paradoxically, although she studies babies, in my view she doesn’t raise questions about infants’ capacity for learning, which may account for their extraordinary abilities without the need for them to be born with pre-specified knowledge.’

Link to article ‘Harvard’s baby brain research lab’ (via 3QD).
Link to video of Spelke interview.