Neuroscience In Our Time

BBC Radio 4’s excellent discussion programme In Our Time just had an interesting edition on neuroscience – what it does, how it does it, and what it’s telling us about the function of the mind and brain.

It’s generally a very interesting discussion, although does get a bit confused towards the end during a discussion of conscious – largely due to a misunderstanding of a famous study.

The discussion touches on neuroscientist Adrian Owen’s study where they wanted to find out whether a patient in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) was conscious by asking them to imagine things and then using fMRI to see if the relevant parts of the brain were active – in other words, if the person was able to consciously hear, understand and carry out the request.

Famously, the patient could – demonstrating that it is possible to be diagnosed with PVS and still be conscious.

However, the guests on the programme discuss the study as if the patient was unconscious and was in a coma, and suggest that this shows the brain can do remarkable things when someone is unconscious which is exactly what it didn’t show.

Otherwise, a fascinating discussion as we’d expect from In Our Time.

Link to programme webpage and audio.

Online psychosis

The New York Times has an article about the interaction between the internet and psychosis that explored online communities that may be focused on delusional beliefs or comprised almost entirely of people who are having psychotic experiences.

If this seems slightly familiar, it’s because it’s partly based on a social network analysis study I did in 2006 with some UK colleagues (which we covered previously).

In a nutshell, the study specifically selected a set of websites describing personal experiences of mind control that were independently assessed by three psychiatrists as describing delusional experiences. Using social network analysis, the study demonstrated that these people were part of a social network just like other online and offline communities.

This is interesting because the diagnostic criteria for a delusion excludes any belief that is “not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture”, whereas these individuals have formed an online community based around their delusional belief, creating a paradox.

Perhaps the most sensible comment in the article in the closing paragraph which quotes psychiatrist Ken Duckworth:

Psychiatrists and researchers say it is too soon to say whether communication on the Internet among people who may be psychotic will negatively effect their illnesses.” This is a very complex little corner,” said Dr. Ken Duckworth, the medical director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy group. “Some people may find it’s healing, but these are really hard questions. The Internet isn’t a cause of mental illness, it’s a complicating new variable.”

Actually, I’m misquoted in a very minor way at the end, where I’m described as saying that research on ‘alien abductees’ has suggested they have severe memory problems.

In fact, we know from the work of psychologist Susan Clancy that the memory problems are definitely there but are actually quite subtle.

Link to NYT article.
Link to text of social network analysis study.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Chick sent me high e

Psychologist Mih√°ly Cs√≠kszentmih√°lyi is best known for his research on ‘flow‘. Sometimes known as being ‘in the zone’, it’s where people lose themselves in their particular talent. His talk to the TED conference has just been put online where he describes how he’s being trying to capture this particular form of peak experience.

The Hungarian psychologist was one of the pioneers of positive psychology, that aims to understand our most valuable attributes and experiences, before it was even thought of as a separate specialism.

Cs√≠kszentmih√°lyi is apparently pronounced ‘chick sent me high e’ which always sounds to me like it should be the title of an Oasis song.

Link to TED video lecture on flow.

Gladwell on Outliers

New York Magazine profiles prolific mind-focused science writer Malcom Gladwell and previews his upcoming book on the unpredictable factors that propel the super-successful to the top.

Gladwell writes incredibly compelling books about psychology and culture that have been wildly popular. The article mentions a multi-million dollar advance for his forthcoming book Outliers.

I have to say, I read his last book, Blink and enjoyed every page but didn’t quite get the punchline. It seemed to be saying sometimes instant judgements can be better than considered judgements, and other times not, but I wanted to know when they are better.

However, Gladwell’s books are as enjoyable as much for their eclecticism as his gripping narrative, and even as a collection of stories about interesting studies I found them eye-opening.

The New York Magazine discusses Gladwell and his work, and it’s probably true to say that he’s one of the most influential people in the public understanding of psychology, so he is always worth keeping tabs on.

Link to New York Magazine article ‘Geek Pop Star’.

Purple brain death

In 1964 the journal Medicine, Science and the Law published an article entitled ‘Unusual Cases 2 – The Purple Brain Death’.

Sadly, the journal is no longer in print and the article isn’t available so I have absolutely no idea what it was about, but it sounds intriguing doesn’t it?

If anyone ever does find out what made this case so unusual, and what a purple brain death is exactly, do get in touch.

I wonder if it has anything to do with the BBC’s standard brain picture which always has a strangely purple tinge.

Link to PubMed entry.

Parental gene fight theory of mental illness

The New York Times discusses a new theory on the link between schizophrenia and autism that suggests that each may depend on the outcome of a battle between the genetic information we inherit from each parent. According to the theory – more genes from the father increases the chance of autistic traits, while more from the mother increases the tendency to experience psychotic experiences.

The theory is proposed by sociologist Christopher Badcock and biologist Bernard Crespi who recently wrote an opinion piece in Nature outlining their idea a few months ago (we discussed it here).

There idea is based on a known effect called genomic imprinting, where the same genes inherited from one parent can have a different effect when compared to when they’re inherited from the other parent.

However, they’re not the first to suggest that autism and schizophrenia may be different sides of the same coin.

Neuropsychologist Chris Frith wrote an influential 1992 book with the snappy title of The Cognitive Neuropsychology of Schizophrenia where he suggested that the core problem in both schizophrenia and autism was an impairment in ‘metarepresentation’ – that is, the ability of the mind to monitor and represent mental states in both ourselves and other people.

Frith argued that schizophrenia is where a working metarepresentation system goes wrong, so affected people lose a sense of ownership of their own thoughts and make impaired inferences about the intentions of others. He further suggested that autism is where the metarepresentation never develops properly, so affected people barely develop the ability to understand the perspective of other people.

Interestingly, the word ‘autism’ itself was first used to describe an aspect of schizophrenia. Eugen Bleuler coined it to capture the introverted withdrawn behaviour seen in some people diagnosed with schizophrenia, and it was later adopted by Hans Asperger to describe the withdrawn introverted behaviour of a group of children he was studying who would now likely be diagnosed with autism of Asperger syndrome.

Link to NYT article on Crespi and Baddock theory.

The not very near death experience

I’ve just discovered this fantastic 1990 study from The Lancet that investigated near death experiences reported by patients. However, it did something quite different from most other studies – it actually checked to see whether the patients were actually near death or not – and many of them weren’t.

The study looked at the experiences of 58 people who believed they were about to die during a medical procedure and had subsequently reported a ‘near death experience‘ – often the classic ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ experience, the feeling of the consciousness had left the body like an outside observer, enhanced clarity of thought and the flashback of life’s memories.

The researchers then looked through the medical records of each person to see whether they had really been ‘near death’. Of the 58 in the study, 30 patients were never in danger of dying, despite their belief at the time.

The study then went on to compare whether certain experiences were more likely to appear in those patients who were genuinely near death.

The experiences were largely the same across both groups, but those who were really at risk of dying were more likely to experience an intense light and enhanced mental clarity.

The authors say they’re not sure why this might be. The explanation that is usually thrown around is that ‘restricted oxygen to the brain causes light sensations’ but I’ve no idea whether this is anything more than a convenient hypothesis and has any scientific data to back it up.

Link to study paper.
Link to PubMed entry.

BBC All in the Mind kicks off with race, law and suicide

A new season of BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind has just started and begins with a discussion of a fantastic study that used a version of the popular children’s game Guess Who? to investigate the social niceties of discussing race.

The programme also tackles the UK’s new mental health act and the alarmingly high rate of suicide in older women in Britain’s South Asian communities.

Despite being presented by the brilliant Claudia Hammond, it’s still not quite as good as its Australian namesake and still has a slightly parochial feel to it.

However, it is also known for flashes of brilliance and there should be a few of those in the coming weeks as the new season progresses.

Link to first in the new season of BBC All in the Mind.
Link to programme webpage.

Encephalon 58 gets Highlighted

The 58th edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just appeared online, this time hosted by health and science site Highlight Health.

A couple of my favourites include an excellent piece on Combining Cognits on what we know about the development of pain perception in unborn children and an article from Ouroboros on sex and the ageing brain.

This edition has a number of new blogs featured, so it’s a great opportunity to what’s new and notable on the neuroscience internet. Bit too much alliteration in that last sentence but I think you get the idea. Go check it out.

Link to Encephalon 58.

Holy hypnosis sent to baffle materialists

In a recent discussion of news that creationist-allied campaigners are suggesting neuroscience implies a non-materialist (e.g. soul-based) human existence, I mentioned this was old news as Nobel-prize winning physiologist John Eccles had argued much the same in the early 20th century.

However, I recently got back to reading The Discovery of the Unconscious, Ellenberger’s huge book and remarkably thorough history of psychodynamic psychiatry, and discovered this gem on p161 that mentions a similar view from 1846.

It discusses the church’s view of hypnotism, then called magnetism, and how one notable French priest was arguing that its effects were so startling that it must have been sent by God to piss off scientists.

…in 1846, the celebrated Dominican preacher Father Lacordaire declared in one of his sermons in Notre Dame Cathedral that he believed in magnetism, which, he felt consisted of “natural but irregular forces which cannot be reduced to scientific formulas and which are being used by God in order to confound contemporary materialism”.

The Catholic church has traditionally had an ambivalent relationship with hypnosis, and banned its members from the practice from the 1880s until 1955, as we discussed previously.

Link to more about The Discovery of the Unconscious.
Link to previous post on LSD, hypnosis and the church.

The art of digital synaesthesia

Artist and researcher Mitchell Whitelaw wrote an interesting and in-depth article on the links between audio-visual fusion art and synaesthesia for the Senses and Society journal. Whitelaw has just put the piece online, has illustrated it with embedded videos of some of the stunning pieces he references, but also discusses the neuroscience of synaesthesia with considerable care and insight.

In the age of ubiquitous digital media, synesthesia is everywhere. In human, neurological form, it is rare: for perhaps three in a hundred people, a stimulus in one sensory modality automatically induces a sensation in another. Auditory-to-visual synesthesia, or ‚Äúcolored hearing‚Äù is much rarer still. Yet now this phenomenon is realised, apparently, inside every digital music player, on VJ screens in every club, in robot lightshows. On these screens sound is transformed into visual pattern and form instantly and automatically; an exotic perceptual phenomenon becomes a technically mediated commonplace…

Synesthesia is widely used as an analogy around this work. The analogy provides a mapping that aligns subjective sensation with audiovisual signals; it maps perceptual or even neurological structures onto technical structures. The analogy also plays another role, foregrounding sensation in the reception of the artworks; proposing to operate, for the subject, at the level of direct sensation…

This paper‚Äôs main aim is to test this analogy, and the related historical drive that Strick suggests; to consider if, and how, such practice can be thought of as synesthetic, and examine structural parallels between synesthesia as a perceptual and neurological phenomenon, and the automatic or transcoded linking of audio and visual media…

The article is quite dense in places but well worth the effort as it carefully picks out whether these digital artworks tell us anything about synaesthesia or are just dropping neurological buzz words to sound cutting-edge.

BTW, the image is a still from a fantastic piece by artist Robert Hodgin which is embedded in the article, but which you can also view here.

Link to ‘Synesthesia and Cross-Modality in Contemporary Audiovisuals’ (thanks Alex!).

The War of the War of the Worlds

RadioLab make the most beautiful, compelling programmes. They recently broadcast a truly excellent edition on the War of the Worlds radio dramatisation, which has sparked mass panics, not once, not twice, but three times, over a period of more than two decades.

The most famous adaptation of H.G. Well’s novel was created by Orson Wells in 1938 and the RadioLab team do a fantastic job of taking us through the original radio play and putting exactly in context how it was broadcast and what buttons it pushed in the society of the time to explain exactly why it had such an immediate impact.

One of the most interesting bits is where they read out transcripts of listener interviews where some claim to gave actually seen or smelt the smoke from the battle with aliens, or even seen the alien spaceships themselves. One fascinating bit suggests some listeners thought they were being invaded by Germans.

The stunt was repeated twice, each causing listeners to panic to different degrees. One broadcast in Ecuador caused mass rioting and several deaths.

It’s a completely gripping programme and wonderfully produced, so take some time, listen on some headphones or good speakers, sit back and enjoy.

Apparently a new RadioLab series starts in two weeks, and we’ll keep you updated when it hits the wires.

Link to RadioLab on War of the Worlds.

Mystery callers and lost in space

Neurophilosophy has recently published two excellent articles that discuss the recent discovery of very selective psychological problems: one person can’t recognise people by their voice, the other can’t navigate through streets.

In themselves, these sorts of disorders are not that surprising, but they help us understand how the brain develops.

Actually, scratch that last sentence. If you’re familiar with the brain injury literature, these sorts of disorders are not that surprising, but if you’re not, they’re completely mind blowing.

Take prosopagnosia for example. Sometimes rather inaccurately called ‘face blindness’ (people see faces, they just don’t seem distinctive) it was first identified in a patient with a bullet wound to the head who lost the ability to recognise faces but could still recognise other objects.

If you think about it, this is incredible. When we look out onto the world, faces don’t seem different from the rest of the things we look at, but damage to a specific area of the brain (most commonly the right fusiform gyrus) can selectively damage our ability to see faces, suggesting that there are brain functions specialised for this task. How specialised, whether only for faces, is a matter of ongoing debate, but the fact that they are specialised at all is incredible enough.

The explanation for these selective impairments goes something like this: our brain functions are shaped by a combination of the broad outline of genetics and the fine tuning of experience during growth. When we reach adulthood they are fairly fixed. Damaged can knock out these fairly fixed pathways leading to selective impairments.

What has become clear over the last decade is that some people can have selective impairments without suffering brain injury. They seem to have them from birth.

This is the case with the two people discussed by Neurophilosophy. An inability to recognise people by just their voice or an inability to navigate streets after brain damage is interesting but not earth shattering. These sorts of cases have been reported before.

But the fact that these are developmental disorders is an interesting and important twist, not least for what they suggest about how much certain functions might be ‘set’ in the brain early on, but also for what they suggest about the ‘life history’ or our cognitive skills.

The two case studies discussed by Neurophilosophy are both fascinating as life stories of people with atypical difficulties but also scientifically compelling because they help us understand complex dance of brain growth and development.

Link to piece on developmental topographagnosia.
Link to piece on developmental phonagnosia.

2008-11-07 Spike activity

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

Neurophilosophy has a fantastic ’60 Minutes’ documentary on brain computer interfaces.

Dana’s Cerebrum magazine has an excellent article on ‘connectomics‘ or the neuroscience of tracing the ‘wiring’ of the brain.

PsychCentral has an excellent piece on the psychological research on ‘friends with benefits‘, less politely known as fuck buddies.

Japanese researchers make brain tissue from stem cells, reports Yahoo News.

Antipsychotic aripiprazol has recently been licensed for depression but previous trials suggest it is more likely to cause akathisia than treat mood problems reports Furious Seasons. As an aside, aripiprazol was nicknamed akathisiol in one hospital I worked in.

PsyBlog discusses recent research that suggests, contrary to popular belief, <a href="Weather Has Little Effect on Mood”>weather has little effect on mood.

My Mind on Books has a video debate on AI entitled ‘Dreaming of an artificial intelligence‘.

Eye misalignment may suggest a raised risk for mental illness later in life, reports Reuters.

The excellent Not Exactly Rocket Science notes a recent study which has found that the same gene mechanism underlies two language disorders.

Cognitive Daily reports on a poetic study that found that being excluded from a social group makes you feel cold – literally.

The increasingly impressive Neuronarrative has an interview with brain specialising science writer Rita Carter.

Left-handed people are more inhibited, reports open-access shy New Scientist.

The BPS Research Digest discusses research finding rare, intense positive events won’t make you happy, but lots of little ones will.

Encultured drug cravings and dopamine

Scientific American Mind’s Mind Matters blog has a great interview with neuroanthropologist Daniel Lende who discusses why we need an understanding of both culture and neuroscience to get a fully integrated account of human thought and behaviour.

Lende discusses his work on integrating cultural factors and the neuroscience of the dopamine reward system in a study of addiction in Colombian teenagers.

A common approach in neuroscience is to take experiences labelled by everyday words and try and find what changes in the brain when someone says they are having the experience.

The problem is that the definitions of the labelling words may be indistinct (‘love’), incoherent (‘belief’) or understood differently in different cultures (‘anxiety’).

The approach Lende advocates is to take an anthropological approach to the problem. In other words, attempting to understand what a concept or label means in a particular culture so the neuroscience can be integrated in full knowledge of the diversity of the experience.

This predicament is where neuroanthropology can be so helpful. In order to draw connections between neuroscience and real world situations, I went out and talked to people to understand craving and addiction from their point of view. This type of real-world data can both challenge and inform ideas based on animal models and neuroimaging studies.

In translating the dopamine research, my work with adolescents proved crucial. They knew what they experienced far better than I did. Using systematic interviews across a range of involvement with drugs (hard-core users to having never tried drugs), I saw three areas of overlap between research on dopamine and compulsive involvement with addictive substances.

First was the emphasis that researchers placed on “wanting.” I was lucky in Colombia; addicted adolescents often described their experiences as “querer más y más,” to want more and more. Second, dopamine affects shifts in attention, which meant that some adolescents couldn’t focus on anything else when they knew an opportunity to consume was about to come along. Third, adolescents described a sense of being pushed toward something—an urge that rose up without conscious desire.

You may recognise Lende from the excellent Neuroanthropology blog and he also discusses some of the work of his co-bloggers in the interview, including some fascinating work looking on how people learn balance.

However, if you’re interested in more details about the study on Colombian teenagers, he’s recently posted some more information including links to the full text of the papers.

Link to SciAmMind Mind Matters interview.
Link to Neuroanthropology post on Colombia study.
Link to follow-up and more information.

A passive aptitude of soul

I’ve just got round to listening to a September edition of ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone on Frankenstein, science and philosophy in the Romantic period. Tragically, the mp3 is no longer available, but one of the people on the programme read out a fantastic Benjamin Franklin quote on Mesmerism.

Franklin was charged by the King of France to investigate the scientific basis of Mesmerism. We now think of mesmerism as hypnosis but at the time Franz Anton Mesmer believed that the effects were because he had discovered a way of manipulating a powerful invisible fluid that permeated the universe.

One of the interviewees on the programme read out Franklin’s conclusion to the his 1784 report to Louis XIV on the scientific basis of Mesmerism, and it’s both profound and beautiful:

It is perhaps the history of the errors of mankind, all things considered, that is more valuable and interesting than that of their discoveries. Truth is uniform and narrow; it constantly exists and does not seem to require so much an active energy as a passive aptitude of soul, in order to encounter it.

But error is endlessly diversified. It has no reality but is the pure and simple creation of the mind that invents it. In this field, the soul has room enough to expand herself to display all her boundless faculties and all of her beautiful and interesting extravagances and absurdities.

Obviously this was before the days when it was traditional to finish a scientific report by sitting on the fence and suggesting further research.

Link to Philosopher’s Zone edition, sans mp3, avec transcript.