2008-11-28 Spike activity

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

Excellent coverage of a fascinating study from both Neurophilosophy and Not Exactly Rocket Science: visual magnification of a painful hand can increase felt pain and swelling in the hand, using a lens to make it look smaller does the reverse.

Edge has an article by Chris Badcock on the autism and schizophrenia as flip-side genetic conditions.

A women with hypermnesic super-memory is interviewed by Spiegel magazine.

BBC News reports that world’s only dedicated ‘video game addiction’ clinic finally comes to their senses and suggests most the problems are social difficulties.

Respected neuropsychologist Sergio Della Salla says ‘brain exercises a waste of time’ in The Guardian, although it doesn’t make clear that he seems to be specifically talking about the Brain Gym nonsense.

AP News has a story on TV-themed paranoid delusions. I get the ‘calm down, calm down’ quote at the end.

Medicating away drug cravings and the application of neuroscience to treating addicted ex-convicts is discussed by Dana’s Cerebrum magazine.

Developing Intelligence looks at some novel and unacknowledged confounds in cognitive psychology in a typically thorough article.

How did a nonstory about bully neuroscience based on an iffy study end up in a New York Times blog? ask Slate.

Newsweek discusses the alarming suicide rate among young black men in light of the recent ‘internet suicide’.

A large dictionary of <a href="Street drug slang
http://argot.com/”>drug slang is archived on argot.com.

Scientific American discusses the psychology of what they call patternicity – aka apophenia, pareidolia, or perceiving meaningful information in random noise.

We’re better at spotting fake smiles when we’re feeling rejected, reports the BPS Research Digest.

Inside one teenager’s struggle with prescription pill addiction with a personal story in Newsweek.

Wired reports that one of the US military’s controversial ‘human terrain‘ team of battlefield social scientists has been charged with murder.

A discussion of the pro-ana groups on Facebook hits Newsweek.

Why do men buy sex? asks Scientific American in a somewhat polarised article. Paging Dr Petra

Science After Sunclipse discusses mathematical models that have attempted to simulate a certain form of hallucination called a form constant.

To the bunkers! Scientific American has video of Israeli soldier robots.

The Rocky Mountain News reports that Denver police are being tested for bias with brain scans. Nothing like alpha-testing techniques that haven’t been fully validated yet (thanks Stephanie!).

Eric Schwitzgebel comments on the recent research on how much we dream in colour or black and white on The Splintered Mind.

Don’t get high on your own supply – enflurane edition

Another in our occasional series of articles on the importance of the motto “don’t get high on your own supply”. This edition concerns the case of an anaesthetist who was testing some of his own anaesthetics while driving.

From a case report from Forensic Science International:

A 42-year-old anaesthetist firstly was observed sitting in a parked automobile under a bridge, secondly 100 m further. Both times he was holding a handkerchief under his nose. Then he drove on and crashed into a lorry at a red traffic light.

After that an odd behaviour was noticed. The markedly affected physician put something trickle out of a small brown bottle in the handkerchief and inhaled the fumes. During the time interval until the arrival of the police he went asleep and could not be waked up without difficulties.

At first he did not take any notice of the police. Later he was extremly unsure, trembled from head to foot, staggered and swayed from site to site and clutched his car not to fall down. The handkerchief in his car smelled of the content of the brown bottle with the label Ethrane®

Enflurane is a type of ether, of which diethyl ether was an early inhaled anaesthetic.

It was one of the great discoveries of surgery although could be lethal in overdose, or if it caught fire – as it is highly flammable.

Needless to say, it has been replaced by rather safer alternatives, when used correctly, of course.

Link to PubMed entry for case study.

Hallucinating Lilliput

Lilliputian hallucinations are where small figures of animals or people appear as visions, often in the bottom half of the visual field, sometimes as dancing, playful creatures. Last year the German Journal of Psychiatry published a fascinating English-language article about these curious perceptual distortions.

They can appear in a number of conditions, including psychosis and schizophrenia, during alcohol withdrawal-induced delirium tremens, or when part of the retina starts to degrade in macular degeneration.

The article has three case studies that give a flavour of these often surprising hallucinations and goes on to discuss what we know about their cause.

Here’s an excerpt from one of the case studies of an alcohol dependent man (who was drinking about 50 units a day!) who suddenly cut-down on his drinking and started experiencing striking withdrawal effects as a result:

Following this, his sleep had markedly reduced and he started seeing little people all over the house. They were about a foot high, with funny colorful dresses, weird faces, big eyes and mouths. Some of them were also wearing spectacles. They would follow him all around the house and he could hear their footsteps. Patient would also see them drinking his blood (did not elaborate further) and complained of physical weakness as a result. Initially, patient attributed his experiences to some evil spirits present in the house and changed the house. But the experience continued.

Perhaps one of the most surprising causes of these hallucinations is macular degeneration, sometimes diagnosed as Charles Bonnet syndrome, owing to the fact that simple damage to the retina can lead to complex hallucinations that seem to take on a life of their own.

Link to ‘Lilliputian Hallucinations. Understanding a strange Phenomenon’.

Walking the line: the danger of sinus neurosurgery

I’ve just found this gripping article from The Guardian by photojournalist Tom Bible who was diagnosed with a rare and life threatening brain tumour and had an equally rare and life threatening operation to remove it.

The tumour was located in the superior sagittal sinus, one of the major veins that drains blood from the brain.

Operating on it is very dangerous because it is incredibly difficult to stem the bleeding once it’s damaged. As the author mentions in this passage, it’s so dangerous that the operation needs to be carried out while the patient’s heart is stopped:

I now had a challenge: to find a neurosurgeon who was both willing and able to remove my tumour. Dr Thomas recommended two vascular neurosurgeons in the UK. I arranged an appointment with the first one, who subsequently cancelled, saying that it was not the type of operation he would perform. I visited the second neurosurgeon at the National Hospital in London – the leading UK neurosurgery hospital (and one of the most highly rated in the world). He said he had only heard of one of these before. They had had to remove it by resorting to a practice called the ‘cardiac standstill’. In this, they stop the patient’s heart, drain the blood from the body and reconstruct the tumour-infested sinus area, pump the blood back into the body and kick-start the heart again.


The author eventually had the operation in the US, and gives a compelling description of the process from first symptoms to the extended procedure that eventually also needs the radiation-based gamma knife treatment.

Link to Guardian article ‘Brain storm’.

Inner space at the final frontier

The Psychologist has a truly fantastic article on astronaut psychology, treating off-world mental health problems, and the interpersonal dynamics of the space mission.

It is thoroughly fascinating, exceptionally well-written and even contains an interview with astronaut Dr Jay Buckley “a crew member with STS-90, Space Shuttle Columbia’s 16-day Neurolab mission in 1998. The seven-member crew conducted life science experiments focusing on the effects of microgravity on the brain and nervous system.”

I think I’ve just wet myself.

One of my favourite bits is where it discusses what measures they take to maintain the astronauts’ mental health.

This is no small problem and the article notes that psychological problems have been the leading medical cause of long-duration mission terminations.

Depression is apparently a key problem. The article ominously notes that no-one has yet had to use the on-board antidepressant medication, but it does describe a computerised psychological treatment for depression as part of the on-board software package the ‘Virtual Space Station’.

The Virtual Space Station’s depression module will follow the problem-solving treatment (PST) approach to therapy. James Cartreine, the principal investigator on the Virtual Space Station project, says his team chose this form of intervention because it is empirically supported and has high face validity – in other words, it’s immediately apparent to users of the Virtual Space Station how the interactive programme is going to help them.

‘The active ingredient of PST is behavioral activation,’ says Cartreine, ‘getting people with depression to do something – and helping them to feel good about their efforts, whether or not their efforts were successful.’

Because of its focus on identifying problems and working out possible solutions, PST can help combat feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, which is particularly appropriate for people isolated in space in a confined environment. The fact that it’s tangible – it’s geared towards solving observable problems as opposed to cognitive problems – also makes it suitable for astronauts, who have proven to be accepting of the intervention. ‘Astronauts are physical scientists, engineers and programmers – they’re not necessarily used to thinking about their thought processes,’ says Cartreine.

If you’re interested in how the same topic looked in 1959, we discussed some unintentionally hilarious articles from a special issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry on a rather Freudian ‘space psychiatry’ from that very same year.

Link to Psychologist article ‘New horizons’.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid associate editor of The Psychologist and I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut.

When I get that feeling, I need sociosexual healing

New Scientist has an article on the psychology and biology on sleeping around – which has been given the wonderfully gentle and inviting name of ‘sociosexuality’ in the research literature.

Rather predictably, the article contains the rather tired ‘men spread their seed, women look for long term partners’ evolutionary psychology explanation, but also does a good job of countering this with some interesting and sometimes surprising studies from the sex research literature.

One of the most interesting bits is where it notes that foetal testosterone exposure is correlated in men with masculine facial features and number of sexual partners in adulthood, and exactly the the same holds for women:

Another factor with strong links to sociosexuality is masculinity. Boothroyd found men with more masculine-looking faces scored higher on sociosexuality, and it seems to be the same story for women. Sarah Mikach and Michael Bailey of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, examined how women’s sociosexuality related to the degree to which they looked, felt or behaved in a masculine way. They found that heterosexual women who had high numbers of sexual partners were more likely to show higher levels of masculinity.

The researchers argued that these women behave in a way that is more typically male and this could be due to early – probably prenatal – exposure to androgens, such as testosterone, that organise typically “male” brains differently from typically “female” brains (Evolution and Human Behavior, vol 20, p 141). Supporting this idea, Andrew Clark of McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, found a higher rate of sociosexuality in women with a smaller ratio of index to ring finger length – which some researchers believe corresponds to higher prenatal androgen exposure (Evolution and Human Behavior, vol 25, p 113).

If you want to rate your own sociosexuality, they’ve also put the questionnaire online.

Unusually for the normally rather coy New Scientist, the article is open-access. Is this a sign that New Scientist are realising that science is like love – it’s better when it’s free, or are they just using sex as a way of getting short-term affection?

We’ll see how we feel in the morning.

Link to NewSci on ‘The dizzying diversity of human sexual strategies’.

Awesome multi-slice brain puzzle

The photos are of a mysterious and inventive brain puzzle that seems to have popped up on various places on the web.

It allows you to 3D slice an MRI brain scan in multiple ways, and unlike other puzzles, it needs to be assembled with the picture on the inside.

Curiously, the various web pages which discuss it don’t say where it’s from, so we don’t know whether it’s just someone’s one-off brilliant idea, or whether it’s a commercially available product.

Like all great puzzles, it’s conceptually very simple – just a brain scan printed out in slices and cut to fit the the surfaces on the relevant section of blocks – but it looks devilishly difficult to complete.

And once it’s done, you have a genuinely useful 3D scan model to play with.

If you don’t get it right away, have a look at some of the other photos and it will all become clear.

UPDATE: Grabbed from the comments (thanks prlwytzkofsky).

It was made by Neil Fraser, a software engineer at Google. See
here and here. Cool stuff indeed!

Link to photos (thanks Sandra!)
Link to more photos and more links!