Drug corruption: a rough guide

The January edition of the New York Review of Books has an excellent article on the pharmaceutical industry and the corruption of medical ethics that summarises the recent revelations of fraud, undisclosed payments, data burying and off-label promotion that pervade the industry.

The piece is by Marcia Angell, who spent 20 years as editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and is now a senior lecturer in Harvard Medical School.

Rather disappointingly, although not particularly surprisingly, is the fact that psychiatry holds pride of place in the drug company corruption and unethical dealings stakes, with the large part of the article focusing on the marketing of major psychiatric drugs.

Marketing in the pharmaceutical industry not only relates to advertising and payments to doctors – in the form of money or gifts – but also to the published research which is often specifically designed to show the drug in the best possible light, or is deliberately buried if it doesn’t.

One person who has been instrumental in uncovering some of the most recent revelations is US Senator Charles Grassley who has spent the last year digging into payments to doctors and has uncovered large undisclosed sums paid to the biggest names in psychiatry.

The New York Review of Books article is a fantastic potted guide to the whole sordid business and is well worth a read if you want an update on the latest techniques used to market psychiatric drugs.

Link to NYRB piece ‘Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption’.

It’s not a supermarket, it’s a behavioural science lab

The Economist has a fascinating article on how new technology is turning supermarkets into behavioural science labs and how you are an unwitting participant in marketing experiments.

The piece discusses the psychology of big store marketing, touching on three areas: store layout and environment design, ‘neuromarketing‘ and customer tracking.

It’s interesting that much of the fuss in the media has focused on ‘neuromarketing’ – the use of cognitive neuroscience to understand consumer behaviour – when it is clear from this article that it is really quite impotent in the face of the two other powerful techniques.

Neuromarketing is largely the study of financial decision making and typically relies on correlating brain activity with simulated consumer purchasing.

The idea is that it will explain how we make purchase decisions and will give us access to some of the unconscious process that are at work. Once we understand these, it could lead marketers to new techniques that we would never have discovered by studying behaviour or opinions alone.

In other words, it’s a theory generating process, because the bottom line of marketing is to increase sales – an objectively measured, concrete outcome.

If we want to see if a marketing technique has worked, we would want to study what people actually do with their money, so the proof of any insight from neuromarketing is actually in follow-up behavioural experiments or sales figures.

You can see from the article why the media fuss and commercial hype of neuromarketing is often unjustified because its abstract benefit is no match for the behavioural data and this is being gathered in almost frightening detail every time you shop.

Three technologies are mentioned: RFID tags – tiny radiotransmitters that can be used to track individual items in the shop; using mobile phone signals to track shoppers position and path through the store; and face recognition software to track people via the security cameras and record their emotional expressions.

Combine this with the detailed purchase data from the tills, and you have a marketing psychologists dream: the fine detail of how people actually behave in the store, how they interact with individual products, and what they actually purchase.

In other words, it’s possible to see how any changes affect behaviour during decision-making and at the purchase point. The sheer number of shoppers means that the data set is huge – you could not ask for better behaviour science data – and that even quite subtle changes can be tried and tested.

The Economist article does a great job of explaining some of the techniques that are being used to study shoppers, but also some of the techniques that are currently being used to entice / manipulate shoppers (take your pick!) during their visit to the supermarket.

Link to Economist article on the behavioural science of supermarkets.

The psychosis podcast

The University of Manchester have developed a pilot of an educational podcast on psychosis and they’d like your help in evaluating it.

Their page has all the details and I won’t give you too much additional information on it here, except to say you just need to answer a brief questionnaire, listen to the podcast and give your feedback online.

It’s part of a project to provide accurate and useful information on delusions, hallucinations and their effects, as well as tips of dealing with unusual experiences if they occur.

You just need to check their page and all will be explained.

Link to Manchester Uni podcast evaluation page.

The original sex machine

New Scientist has a completely charming article on ‘Elektro‘ – the world’s first celebrity robot who wowed the crowds at the 1939 New York World’s Fair with his mechanics that produced a remarkable interactive experience for the time.

The article is by Noel Sharkey, an AI and robotics researcher, who recounts the robot’s amazing story as he moved from mechanical marvel, to forgotten relic, to museum centrepiece.

One curious part of the story is that Elektro tried the classic B-list celebrity tactic of using sex to revive a flagging career – appearing in a proto soft porn film in the 1960s.

The movie was entitled Sex Kittens Go to College, and you can see Elektro featured in the trailer. The movie is remarkable largely for the fact that it is so soft as to be completely safe for work – presumably relying on the strategy rediscovered by millions of bloggers that simply mentioning sex in the title gets attention regardless of the content (see above).

However, there’s also some great colour newsreel footage of Elektro in action at the World’s Fair and you can see how impressive he was.

The NewSci article describes some of the technology that drove Elektro. The mechanics of the ‘voice recognition’ system are a particularly inventive hack.

The incredible ingenuity of Elektro’s design was topped off by his sleek exterior. There was no remote control. Instead, the robot relied on a combination of motors, photoelectric cells, telephone relays and record players to perform 26 preprogrammed routines, each one initiated by voice commands from a human co-star. These were spoken into a telephone connected to the robot’s chest, where circuitry converted each syllable into a pulse of light and transmitted it to a photoelectric cell. A second circuit added up the syllables and triggered relays to operate the corresponding electromechanical functions: a command with three syllables, for example, would start the robot’s routine, and four syllables would stop it. As part of these routines, Elektro would raise and lower his arms, turn his head, move his mouth, count on his fingers and even smoke a cigarette and puff out smoke.

The robot could also respond to questions by using relays to switch between a bank of phonographs playing 78 rpm voice recordings that were hidden behind a curtain. This gave Elektro a vocabulary of 700 words and an extensive repertoire of banter: “I am a smart fellow as I have a very fine brain of 48 electrical relays,” he would tell the crowd. “It works just like a telephone switchboard. If I get a wrong number I can always blame the operator. And by the way, I see a lot of good numbers out in our audience today.”

Link to NewSci article on Elektro.
Link to trailer for Sex Kittens Go to College.
Link to footage of Elektro at the 1939 World’s Fair.

Do the test: change blindness versions

dothetest.co.uk, is the Transport for London site which brought you the urbanised inattentional blindness video. Now they’re back with a feast of change blindness-YouTube goodness, here, here, and here.

The moral is the same, and evidence-based: even large things can be hard to spot if you don’t know they are there, so look out for cyclists.

2008-12-26 Spike activity

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

The Neurocritic covers an interesting case of sandwich-induced fainting.

Recession can be deadly for domestic abuse victims, reports The Boston Globe as it examines the relationship between the economy and domestic violence.

The New York Times has an obituary for the recently departed and widely respected linguist Carol Chomsky, wife of Noam Chomsky.

A spontaneous experience of a sensed presence caught on EEG. Interesting study with a great write-up from the BPS Research Digest.

New Scientist reports that US police could get ‘pain beam‘ weapons, Mega City One fantasies to follow.

A new book on traffic psychology is reviewed by the excellent Cognitive Daily.

SciAm’s Mind Matters blog has an excellent piece on how visual feedback using binoculars alters pain perception and swelling in chronic pain patients.

The endlessly fascinating Cognition and Culture Blog has a engaging piece on the psychology of perceiving cartoon faces.

Science News reports on new research that suggests disturbed sleep may be a sign associated the later development of Parkinson’s disease.

A book review and fascinating insight into the indecisiveness of William James is posted on Neuronarrative.

If you’ve been blogging the world of anthropology or you know a post that really hit the mark, you’ve got a few more days to get your nominations in for the Best of Anthropology Blogging 2008 to be hosted on Neurophilosophy.

To continue with the theme, Somatosphere has a fascinating piece about microbes and anthropology.

A Quantum of Christmas

A not very good photo of an enjoyable Christmas afternoon spent watching James Bond movie A Quantum of Solace on the psychiatric ward of Hospital San Vincente de Paúl in Medellín.

In the service of international understanding, I’m being taught about Colombian cuisine and salsa music, and in return I’ve taught the hospital canteen how to make chip buttys and have introduced the tradition of the Bank Holiday Bond Movie.

Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All.