Adultery for heroin users

A list of ingredients found by chemical analysis that have been used to cut street heroin sold in New York City from 1991 to 1996.

As reported in a 2000 review paper on trends in NYC heroin adulterants:

Acetaminophen (Analgesic)
Aminopyrine (Anti-inflammatory)
Amitryptaline (Anti-depressant)
Antipyrine (Body water measurement)
Benzoczine (Anesthetic)
Caffeine (Stimulant)
Cocaine (Stimulant)
d-metamphetamine (Stimulant)
Diphenhydramine (Anti-histamine)
Doxepin (Anesthetic)
Ephedrine (Stimulant)
Lidocaine (Anesthetic)
Hydroxyzine (Anxiety medication)
Methylparben (Chemical preservative)
Methocarbamol (Muscle relaxant)
Nabumetone (Arthritis treatment)
Nicotinamide (Coenzyme)
Phenylbutazone (Anti-inflammant)
Phenylpropanlamine (Dexatrim / caffeine)
Potassiumchloride (Potassium supplement
Rocaine (Local anesthetic)
Propoxyphene (Analgesic – Darvon)
Sodium Bicarbonate (Acid indigestion)
Quinine (Malaria treatment)
Theophylline (Bronchial dialator)
Thiamine (Dietary supplement)
Thiopental (Barbiturate)
Thioridazine (Nausea medication)
Tripolidine (Allergy medication)
Disodium ethylenediame tetraacetic (Chelating agent for metals)

The study notes that the most common non-dope ingredients in street heroin are lactose, milk sugar, sucrose, cellulose, mannitol and other inert ingredients, but there is an increasing trend for heroin to contain psychoactive chemicals or additional substances to alter its effect through changing how it is absorbed into the body.

Interestingly, the paper also notes that professional heroin cutters are expensive, charging up to $20,000 for a kilo of heroin. This is likely due to the skill and knowledge needed to select ingredients that will have certain effects, which can be different for ‘smokers’, ‘snorters’ and ‘injectors’.

Ingredients that affect the vaporisation point of heroin will be more important for smokers, while adulterants that increase absorption through the nasal passages will obviously be more important for snorters.

For injectors, cutters need to be able to select ingredients that aren’t going to gum up needles or cause too much damage to the users’ veins.

Additionally, some ingredients are added purely for their psychoactive effect to give a different experience and ‘brand’ the dope.

However, owing to the cost of a professional cutter, some dealers just cut it themselves with whatever they think is reasonable, meaning all kinds of potentially fatal ingredients end up in the average bag of smack.

Link to closed-access paper ‘The Re-Engineering of Heroin’.

New RadioLab on the psychology of choice

The excellent RadioLab has returned with a new series and the first is a programme on the psychology of how we make choices, and what can go wrong when brain damage prevents us from making decisions.

The RadioLab team talk to psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of the ‘Paradox of Choice’ on why more choice means people tend to be less happy with their decision, to neuropsychologist Antoine Bechara on how a famous case of frontal lobe damage helped us understand why emotion plays a role in even the most mundane of choices, and to the ubiquitous Malcom Gladwell on the role of the unconscious.

As usual, it sounds beautiful and discusses some great research (the cake and working memory study is one of my favourites).

Interestingly, the programme lets slip that science-writer Jonah Lehrer’s fortchoming book is on choice and perhaps it’s no accident that Lehrer is a contributor to the programme so perhaps we can consider this a preview of some of the material he’ll cover.

Let’s hope so as it’s another great edition of RadioLab.

Link to programme webpage with streaming audio and mp3.

2008-11-21 Spike activity

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

The Situationist has a fantastic video example of a classic experimental philosophy set-up.

The TSA’s ‘behavior detection‘ is wrong more than 99 percent of the time, reports USA Today. Maybe that’s because it’s based on some rather dodgy techniques, as we reported in August last year.

Science Daily reports on an elegant experiment allows who said what to whom to be worked out from the brain scan data. Only from very limited stimuli, but an intriguing study none-the-less.

Can everyone be an Einstein? No, is the short answer, but The Times has a longer one in a nicely balanced article on brain improvement techniques.

Neuroskeptic says Freddie Starr ate my hamster, sorry, it should be Prozac made my cells spiky.

To the bunkers! BBC News reports IBM to build computers that work like brains. Although I’d be more impressed if we could get Microsoft to build software that works like software.

New Scientist reports that coping-with-stress related brain changes occur during menstruation.

Atypical antipsychotics no better than older antipsychotics. We should be used to this headline by now, but this time, it’s a study in kids reported by The Psychiatric Times.

BBC News reports heavy drinkers lie to their doctors about how much they drink. Pope still Catholic (and probably still claiming he doesn’t masturbate).

There’s an excellent interview with Mary Roach, one of my favourite science writers, over at Neuronarrative.

Oprah Magazine has an OK article about neuroscience. Yes, Oprah Magazine. That’s it, we’re mainstream. Neuroscience is over. What else is cool?

Does involving parents really help students learn? Depends on how they’re involved, reports Cognitive Daily.

Science News reports that the brain reorganizes to make room for maths. Which is lucky, because in my brain the space has always been occupied by Batman.

Fred Goodwin, one of the world’s leading bipolar researchers has his radio show pulled over undisclosed payments from drug companies, reports Furious Seasons

Not Exactly Rocket Science has an excellent piece on evidence that graffiti and litter strewn environments encourage crime.

A video lecture on the brain’s visual system is featured by Channel N.

An interpretative dance inspired by the cerebral activation patterns induced by the inflection of regular and irregular verbs, found by the wonderfully eclectic Frontal Cortex. With video of said dance.

The Guardian has an excellent excerpt from Malcom Gladwell’s new book.

The excellent Cognition and Culture blog

Cognition and Culture is a fantastic new group blog by a distinguished group of writers who include some of the leading figures in neuroscience, psychology and anthropology.

It’s from the International Cognition and Culture Institute and contains articles on everything from whether ‘cold’ and ‘warm’ are universal metaphors for relationships to the unexpected impact of pop-cognitive science on British schoolgirls (isn’t that just a Carry On film waiting to happen?).

There’s also plenty of great neuroscience coverage and it’s updated regularly. Good stuff.

Link to Cognition and Culture blog.

All together now

If there were prizes for sheer genius, this would get the top spot. Psychologist Alan Reifman teaches psychology and he also writes song lyrics. When he sees something psychological that particularly inspires him, he writes a song about it to the tune of a popular hit and posts it on his social psychology lyrics blog. The results are sheer joy.

In honor of a talk I attended at UCLA on May 15 by Jean Twenge, on changes in college students’ personality traits and attitudes over time, I’ve written the following song….

Dr. Jean Twenge
(May be sung to the tune of “Eleanor Rigby,” Lennon/McCartney)

Dr. Jean Twenge, spends her time looking at journals and computer screens,
What are the means?
Temporal contrasts, how are today’s youth different from three decades ago?
Are they high or low?

Look at all the samples,
That used the same measure,
The data are ample,
Historical treasure,

Starting with gender, she noted patterns in females’ masculine scores,
Found that they’ve soared,
So many more traits, so many statistics, reside on libraries’ shelves,
Into which she delves,

Look at all the samples,
That used the same measure,
The data are ample,
Historical treasure…

And there’s plenty more where that came from.

If you want the best in social psychology research distilled into the musical magic of the last century’s pop (and I know you do), you need look no further.

Link to SocialPsych Lyrics blog.

How synaesthesia grows in childhood, and dies out

Synaesthesia is well studied in adults and is thought to be a result of unusual connections created during brain development, but it has been hardly studied in children – until now.

A new study published online in Brain searched for letter-colour synaesthetes in 6-8 year old children and found not only are they relatively common, but that the condition changes as the children grow.

Synaesthesia is where the senses are crossed, so perceiving something in one sense triggers a perception in one of the other senses. The type targeted by this study was letter-colour synaesthesia where people perceive colours when they see certain letters.

Synaesthesia is known to be partly inherited and there is brain imaging evidence that people with the letter-colour type have greater number of white matter connections between brain areas known to be involved in word and colour perception.

A popular theory is that synaesthesia results from an unusual form of brain development where certain connections in the brain are not ‘cut’ or ‘pruned’ during the early months of life.

However, letter-colour synaesthesia requires that the person can read and understand letters, which usually doesn’t happen until much latter, so it is likely that there is something going on throughout the critical learning period when children begin to learn to read.

This new study, led by psychologist Julia Simner, tested over six hundred six to seven year-old children with a computerised test that showed them letters and numbers and asked them to select a colour which best fitted the character on screen.

After 10 seconds, the test was repeated. One of the hallmarks of people with letter-colour synaesthesia is that their associations remain constant, so this helped pick out who was the most consistent.

Children who did better than average on this were tested again with a surprise test at 12 months, and those who were more consistent at 12 months than the average child at 10 seconds were classified as having synaesthesia.

Using this, admittedly strict, criteria 1.3% of children had letter-colour synaesthesia and the total number of children with any form of synaesthesia is likely to be greater owing to the fact that the researchers only tested one for one type.

The study also allowed the researchers to see how synaesthesia had developed over the year. Interestingly, the synaesthetic children showed an average of 10.5 stable letter-colour associations aged 6-7 years, but 16.9 aged 7-8, suggesting that the condition is developing and growing over time.

Although not able to confirm it statistically, the study hinted that some people may actually lose synaesthesia over time.

The researchers note that in anecdotal reports adults have described synaesthesia in childhood that died out, while the reverse pattern – synaesthesia spontaneously appearing in adulthood that didn’t exist in childhood, is not reported. A further hint is that in the study, the number of children who had synaesthesia at ages six and seven outnumbered those who had it at ages seven and eight by 2.5 to 1.

Link to study.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Shaking the foundations of the hidden bias test

The New York Times takes a look at the ongoing controversy over one of the newest and most popular tests in psychology that claims to be able to detect hidden ‘implicit’ biases.

The test is the Implicit Association Test or IAT and we’ve discussed in it more detail before but it essentially relies on the fact that if you have a pre-existing association between two concepts, say, the concepts ‘blonde’ and ‘stupid’, making similar associations, by categorising words or pictures for example, will be faster than associating ‘blonde’ and ‘clever’ – because you’re going to be quicker doing whichever classification best matches associations you already have.

The test has famously found that automatic negative associations with minority groups are rife in society, even among people of those groups themselves.

However, a recent study looked at the real world effect of this and found something quite curious:

The doctors who scored higher on the bias test were less likely than the other doctors to give clot-busting drugs to the black patients, according to the researchers, who suggested addressing the problem by encouraging doctors to test themselves for unconscious bias. The results were hailed by other psychologists as some of the strongest evidence that unconscious bias leads to harmful discrimination.

But then two other researchers, Neal Dawson and Hal Arkes, pointed out a curious pattern in the data. Even though most of the doctors registered some antiblack bias, as defined by the researchers, on the whole doctors ended up prescribing the clot-busting drugs to blacks just as often as to whites. The doctors scoring low on bias had a pronounced preference for giving the drugs to blacks, while high-scoring doctors had a relatively small preference for giving the drugs to whites — meaning that the more “biased” doctors actually treated blacks and whites more equally.

This has been one part of an ongoing debate that has suggested that the IAT is not all it’s cracked up to be, while the originators of the test have fired back with the heavyweight review [pdf] of over 100 studies, defending their position and the IAT’s credentials.

The debate is important because the IAT has become one of psychology’s central tools for separating conscious and unconscious associations and has been applied to pretty much everything from racism to diagnosing psychopaths.

Link to NYT article ‘In Bias Test, Shades of Gray’.