Immaculate perception

It had to happen really. After years of religious images seeming to appear in windows, cement, trees and even toast, someone’s ‘identified’ an image of the Virgin Mary in a brain scan.

And from the look of the scan, the Holy Virgin has decided to make a divine appearance in the upper tip of the cerebellum.

Inevitably, the scan is being auctioned off on EBay, although at least on this occasion it’s to help pay for the uninsured patient who has racked up huge bills due to her having the misfortune of being ill.

UPDATE: Neuroanthropology has found the EBay listing for the item, so you can make a bid if you so wish.

Link to ‘Virgin Mary’ brain scan.

Two cases of compulsive swearing – in sign language

The medical journal Movement Disorders reported two case studies of people who were deaf from birth and had the tic disorder Tourettes, leading them to compulsively swear in sign language.

Tourettes is often associated with compulsive swearing, although this only happens in a minority of cases. It is more commonly associated with compulsive actions, that can be non-word vocal sounds, or actions that range from eye-blinks to hair-combing like actions.

However, in some people compulsive swearing, known as coprolalia, does appear, and in these two cases studies, it seems this can even be expressed through sign in people who have sign language as their first language.

This is from a 2001 case study:

Here we present a 31-year-old man with prelingual deafness who had motor and vocal tics as well as coprolalia expressed through sign language. He would feel a compulsion to use the sign for “cunt” (see Fig. 1: [top]) in contexts (grammatical and social) that were not appropriate. This is essentially the sign for the medical term “vagina” except that the sign is pushed toward the person at whom it is aimed and accompanied by threatening body language and facial expression. The patient would then feel embarrassed about the compulsion and aim to disguise it as another sign. Commonly, this would be the sign for “petrol pump” (see Fig. 2: [bottom]). This can also be used to symbolise a small watering can.

There’s also loads of great guides to sign language on the net, including a guide to swearing and a guide to flirting if ever you find yourself wanting to chat up a hot deaf babe or sexy deaf boy.

Link to first case study (vaguely via MeFi).
Link to PubMed entry for same.
Link to second case study (mentioned above).
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Freud – The Prog Rock Musical

If psychoanalysis were a type of music, it would obviously be prog rock, as despite the fact it is largely a triumph of style over substance there are still a few gems hidden among all the self-indulgent widdling.

So why hasn’t anyone made a Freudian prog rock concept album you ask? The answer is that they have, but we’ve just repressed it.

Scottish singer-songwriter Eric Woolfson started a band in the mid-1970s with ex-Pink Floyd producer Alan Parsons. Rather narcissistically, the group was named The Alan Parsons Project.

In the late 80s they decided to create a concept album based on the theories of Sigmund Freud, entitled Freudiana.

In a great irony that has been repeated throughout the history of psychoanalysis, their work on a theory that attempts to resolve conflicts resulted in them falling out and splitting up.

The album appeared in 1990, however, credited to Woolfson, and with a rather bizarre list of contributors. To name but a few, it includes contributions from Leo Sayer, The Flying Pickets, Kiki Dee and, I titter ye not, Frankie Howerd.

So what does an artist do when their labour of love destroys their creative partnership? Why, they turn it into a German language musical that only plays in Vienna before being bogged down in legal wranglings over copyright.

There’s a clip on YouTube, and it’s, erm… very special. Glam Kraut Freud Rock, if you will.

Actually, most of the tracks from the album are on YouTube, so if you want to listen to The Nirvana Principle, Little Hans, Dora, Beyond the Pleasure Principle or No One Can Love You Better Than Me you should be able to find them.

Link to Wikipedia page on Freudiana.
Link to clip of Freudiana the musical.

Bullets, beauty queens and Gordon Holmes

I’ve just found this fascinating article on how legendary neurologist Gordon Holmes discovered how the visual cortex represents visual space after studying World War One soldiers who had experienced bullet or shrapnel wounds to the brain.

World War One taught us a great deal about neuropsychology largely due to developments in weapons technology. The German Mauser was an accurate rifle that used small bore ammunition where previous conflicts had largely used single shot rifles mostly designed so a group of soldiers could create a ‘wall of lead’, rather than a carefully aimed shot.

Developments in shell technology also meant that high explosives could be launched with reasonable accuracy into groups of soldiers causing significant shrapnel injuries.

However, both the rifles and shells were at a stage where the velocity of either a bullet or a piece of shrapnel was relatively slow by today’s standards, meaning that the brain was not additionally damaged by shock waves, like with modern munitions.

In other words, they could create small discrete areas of brain damage that left the rest of the brain largely unaffected.

The British Brodie helmet, which sat like a tin bowl on the top of the head, left the lower parts of the head, and hence the brain, exposed. This meant a significant number of injuries were to the visual cortex, at the rear of the brain.

Neurologist Gordon Holmes studied the link between small lesions to this area and which areas of vision had been lost in soldiers coming back from the front.

The diagram on the right is one of his drawings where he demonstrated the link between a very specific shrapnel wound and a crescent-like area of blindness in the visual field. The full diagram is in the article where he also shows how it affected the right eye.

These studies taught us that the visual cortex is ‘retinoptically mapped’, meaning that each part of the cortex corresponds to a specific area of vision. It also taught us that some brain areas can be very specifically localised to certain functions, whereas previously we’d only known of very general connections between function and brain area.

The article, published in opthamology journal Documenta Ophthalmologica, describes Holmes’ wartime experiences, his discoveries and something of his character.

It also contains this curious episode, related by one of his junior doctors, largely notable for the fact that they hid a blonde beauty queen in a bathroom on the hospital ward to boost morale of the medical house officers.

Holmes had no time for neurotics and hysterics, and less … for psychoanalysis … [Once] In the ward there was a blonde bombshell of twenty-one with mild tension headaches. She was as pretty as a picture, plump as a partridge, who the previous year had been the Daily Mirror Bathing Beauty Queen. The first time I took Holmes around, he stopped at the foot of the bed and said ‘Who is this woman?’ I explained, whereupon he jerked his thumb towards the door and said ‘Get rid of her’.

Of course, I did nothing of the sort, for she was useful in keeping up the morale of us house officers. A week later he came around and said ‘I thought I told you to get that woman out of here?’ Yet another week passed. On this occasion I got the Sister of the ward to hide the patient in the bathroom during the ward round. Standing at the foot of the empty bed, Holmes paused, then said to me ‘Look here, my boy, either she leaves the hospital or you do – and I don’t care which.

Link to ‘Gordon Holmes, the cortical retina, and the wounds of war’.
Link to DOI for same.

2008-12-05 Spike activity

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

Neurophilosophy discusses a newly discovered form of synaesthesia – touch-emotion synaesthesia.

Psychological highlights from the most recent Society for Neuroscience conference are collected by the BPS Research Digest.

Discover Magazine has a punchy bio of Noam Chomsky.

Antidepressants that leak into the water supply affect fishes’ brains, according to research covered by Science News.

A whole lotta coverage of the ‘body swapping’ research has appeared over the last few days. The best has been an article on Not Exactly Rocket Science, a piece from The New York Times and a write-up from Wired.

New Scientist picks up on research suggesting psychopaths have an eye for the underdog.

A review of a new book on the author of Roget’s thesaurus sounds fascinating – “The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget‚Äôs Thesaurus” – and appears in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Neuronarrative interviews Jonah Lehrer and asks him about the art, mind and brain.

A rather breathless title but an interesting write-up of an experiment finding the same thing seems more painful if someone deliberately inflicts it – from Discover.

The British Journal of Psychiatry has a study showing that IQ predicts likelihood of murder – the higher your IQ, the less likely you are to get knocked off.

The U.N. investigates electromagnetic terrorism – a somewhat bizarre episode reported by Wired.

The Washington Post looks at a recent neuroscience study perhaps suggesting the origins of the ‘senior moment‘.

Obama invents a new emotion, reports Slate.

NPR Radio has a fascinating short segment suggesting that colour perception switches sides in brain during development.

A letter in the American Journal of Psychiatry discusses web-based communities of possibly delusional people and comes to a similar conclusion as myself regarding the validity of the diagnostic criteria.

The New York Times reports on the politics of looking calm and unruffled vs looking concerned.

Baby boys may show spatial supremacy, have robot army, will crush puny humans under foot, reports Science News. I paraphrased the last two points you understand.

The New York Times has a curious piece on the possible psychological effect (based on nothing but pure speculation it must be said) of which time watches are set to when the appear in adverts.

A follow-up from our piece on Rudolpfo Llin√°s discusses the role of brain oscillations in schizophrenia (thanks CopperKettle).

Happiness ripples through social networks

This week’s British Medical Journal has a wonderful social network study that examined how happiness moved through social networks. It found that even when friends of friends become happy, the effect can ripple through and boost your own contentment.

It’s a wonderfully conceived study that looks at how people in social networks change over time, both geographically and psychologically. It turns out the effect is stronger if we live near the person, but happiness doesn’t ripple through workplaces, unless we consider the happy person our friend.

While there are many determinants of happiness, whether an individual is happy also depends on whether others in the individual’s social network are happy. Happy people tend to be located in the centre of their local social networks and in large clusters of other happy people.

The happiness of an individual is associated with the happiness of people up to three degrees removed in the social network. Happiness, in other words, is not merely a function of individual experience or individual choice but is also a property of groups of people.

Indeed, changes in individual happiness can ripple through social networks and generate large scale structure in the network, giving rise to clusters of happy and unhappy individuals. These results are even more remarkable considering that happiness requires close physical proximity to spread and that the effect decays over time.

However, the article is also notable for being astoundingly well written. It’s not only a description of a scientific study, it’s a plain language guide to social network analysis.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a scientific paper that’s so clear and informative. If you want to learn about how social network analysis works, this is a great place to start.

Link to text of BMJ study.
Link to write-up from The New York Times.
Link to write-up from Washington Post.

Roll out the barrel

This week’s British Medical Journal has an excellent short article on ‘Diogenes syndrome’, an unofficial name for the situation where an older person is living in squalor without seeming to have mental or neurological impairments that might explain it, but without seeming to mind either.

The syndrome is named after the Ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope who gave up mainstream life to live in poverty and made his home in a barrel.

Older adults found fit the description of the syndrome are often referred to psychiatrists, but the author, psychiatrist Brian Murray, wonders whether we’re missing Diogenes’ point – that happiness has nothing to do with material circumstances.

Alternatively, Diogenes syndrome may simply be a description of a social situation. This would fit with my impression that referrals for Diogenes syndrome have tailed off since reality television programmes started showing celebrity cleaning ladies helping “normal” people living in squalor. Age seems to be a factor: perhaps it is a sign of our paternalistic culture that a person younger than 65 living in squalor is seen by millions on television, whereas those past the age of 65 are seen by a psychiatrist.

Link to thoughtful BMJ piece on Diogenes syndrome.

Is shaken baby syndrome a myth?

Discover magazine has a thought-provoking article on the question of whether ‘shaken baby syndrome’, claimed to be a specific type of brain damage that occurs to young children if shaken, actually exists as a useful syndrome. If it doesn’t, it might not only be a medical miscategorisation but also a legal disaster that may have falsely convicted innocent families of child abuse.

Critics argue it’s a bit like calling a broken nose ‘punched in the face syndrome’. The label is for a non-specific injury but which automatically leads us to assume that an aggressor must exist.

Once a doctor says that an infant must have been shaken, it triggers a hunt for the shaker. In one diagnostic step, the legal system is brought to bear on the baby’s family and anyone else near the infant at the time of the supposed shaking.

The symptomatic triad of bleeding between the brain and skull (known as subdural or subarachnoid hematomas), bleeding behind the retinas, and brain swelling is both the core of an SBS diagnosis and the point of departure for the syndrome’s skeptics. The medical proof that shaking alone can cause these internal head injuries is questionable, the skeptics say, when many other things, from infections to malnutrition to falls onto a hard surface, are known to be causes of similar symptoms in infants.

In contrast, supporters of the condition, which came to world-wide attention in the case of British nanny Louise Woodward, argue that shaking causes babies specific injuries that are unlikely to be triggered by anything else. The article quotes Eli Newberger, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School:

‚ÄúBy the time I was asked to testify in the Louise Woodward case…there was a great deal of clinical understanding about [SBS-related] trauma,‚Äù Newberger says. ‚ÄúThe infant‚Äôs head is disproportionately larger in relation to the rest of its body than our heads are. A child can‚Äôt stop the to-and-fro excursions of the head with its neck. The brain bobbles about. The infant‚Äôs brain is softer than the adult‚Äôs.‚Äù…

Money, Newberger suspects, has brought otherwise good people over to what he and his colleagues call the “dark side,” doubting SBS. “I have never ceased to be amazed about what highly regarded, well published, scientifically informed doctors will do when they’re offered large amounts of money,” he says.

And indeed, experts on both sides seem to charge a great deal for their time.

The article walks us through some of the studies that have attempted to look at how many children with these symptoms show other signs of abuse, or have tried to simulate the damage with computer or physical models.

It’s a fascinating look at a syndrome I just took for granted as being widely validated and looks at the implications of the scientific work for the legal system, where incorrect diagnosis can lead to abusers going free or loving parents being jailed.

Link to ‘Does Shaken Baby Syndrome Really Exist?’.

Technology to see through other people’s eyes

Neurotech analyst Zack Lynch has an interesting post on his Brain Waves blog about trying out the EyeSeeCam, a wearable camera that tracks eye movements so it can film exactly where the person is looking, allowing others to literally see the world through somebody else’s eyes.

Lynch wore the device while at the recent Society for Neuroscience conference and describes how it works:

EyeSeeCam is based on the combination of two technologies: an eye tracking and a camera motion device that operates as an artificial eye. The challenges in designing such a system are mobility, high bandwidth, and low total latency. These challenges are met by a newly developed lightweight eye tracker that is able to synchronously measure binocular eye positions at up to 600 Hertz. The camera motion device consists of a parallel kinematics setup with a backlash-free gimbal joint that is driven by piezo actuators with no reduction gears. As a result, the latency between eye rotations and the camera is as low as 10 milliseconds.

EyeSeeCam provides a new tool for fundamental studies in vision research, particularly, on human gaze behavior in the real world. This prototype is a first attempt to combine free user mobility with biological image stabilization and unrestricted exploration of the visual surround in a man-made technical vision system.

Does this remind anyone else of Strange Days?

Link to Zack Lynch on wearing the EyeSeeCam.
Link to scientific paper with cool video.

The oscillations of Rudolfo Llin√°s

The New York Times has an excellent profile of free-thinking neuroscientist Rudolfo Llin√°s who is renowned for his theories on the importance of brain oscillations and his unique take on consciousness.

Now based in New York, Llin√°s is a native of Colombia and is considered one of the most important living neuroscientists.

He views the brain as a neurophysiologist but applies his knowledge of neurobiology to understanding some of the bigger questions, such as conscious experience and mental illness.

When the brain is awake, neurons in the cortex and thalamus oscillate at the same high frequency, called gamma. “It’s like a Riverdance performance,” Dr. Llinás continued. “Some cells are tapping in harmony and some are silent, creating myriads of patterns that represent the properties of the external world. Cells with the same rhythm form circuits to bind information in time. Such coherent activity allows you to see and hear, to be alert and able to think.”

But at day’s end, cells in the thalamus naturally enter a low-frequency oscillation. They burst slowly instead of firing rapidly. With the thalamus thrumming at a slower rhythm, the cortex follows along. You fall asleep. Your brain is still tapping out slow rhythms, but consciousness is suspended.

So if a small part of the thalamus gets permanently stuck at a low frequency, or part of the cortex fails to respond to the wake-up call, Dr. Llin√°s said, an abnormal rhythm is generated, a so-called thalamocortical dysrhythmia.

And Llin√°s claims that specific dysrhythmias can be seen in various brain problems each of which might represent a specific breakdown in the normal oscillations of the brain.

Link to NYT ‘In a Host of Ailments, Seeing a Brain Out of Rhythm’.

Thanks for the memories HM

The densely amnesic Patient HM, one of the most famous and important patients in the history of neuroscience, has passed away.

HM, now revealed as Henry G. Molaison, suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy that was not helped by existing drugs and so was referred to neurosurgeon William Scoville in 1953.

Scoville attempted a new type of operation to remove the parts of the brain which triggered the seizures, cutting out the majority of the hippocampus on both sides of the brain, along with the amygdala and parahippocampal gyrus.

This left HM with a dense antereograde amnesia, meaning that while his memory for pre-surgery events was generally very good, he was unable to create new conscious long-term memories.

His ability to learn new skills and obtain conditioned associations remained intact, however, and the differences in his memory abilities and the precise knowledge of which parts of the brain were missing allowed some of the first insights into the neuropsychology of memory.

The initial study on HM and his dense amnesia was first published in 1957 by Scoville and the young psychologist Brenda Milner. It has since become one of the most widely cited and widely taught of all neuropsychology case studies.

However, HM continued to participate in research studies since his initial appearance in the scientific literature and was known among researchers for his warm and easy going personality.

The most recent study on HM was published only this year and examined the linguistic content of his crossword puzzles, of which he’d been a fan of for the whole of his adult life. The study examined whether his language skills had been affected by years of dense amnesia.

They hadn’t, suggesting that once acquired, the maintenance of written language skills doesn’t seem to require intact medial temporal lobes.

Much of the later work with HM was completed in partnership with neuropsychologist Suzanne Corkin, who wrote an article [pdf] for Nature Reviews Neuroscience in 2002 that was part tribute and part research summary, detailing his massive contribution to our understanding of memory.

UPDATE: The New York Times has an excellent obituary for HM.

Link to announcement of HM’s death (via MeFi).
Link to classic case study.
pdf of 2002 review article.

The dead stay with us

Scientific American Mind Matter’s blog has just published an article I wrote on grief hallucinations, the remarkably common experience of seeing, hearing, touching or sensing our loved ones after they’ve passed away.

Grief hallucinations are a normal reaction to having someone close to you die and are a common part of the mourning process, but it’s remarkable how often people are embarrassed to say they’ve had the experience because they worry what others might think.

I was inspired to write the piece after reading a wonderful paper, published in Transcultural Psychiatry, by psychiatrist Carlos Sluzki on the cultural significance of one Hispanic lady’s post-grief hallucinations.

My reference to the shadow cat draws on the intro to Sluzki’s article which must be one of the most beautiful openings to an academic article I’ve ever read.

I note that there’s not a great deal of research on grief hallucinations, despite how common they are, although I picked up on a study during the last few days which addressed these curious phenomena in a study on psychotic symptoms.

A thorough population survey in France that appeared earlier this year found that grief hallucinations were the most frequent ‘psychotic’ symptom in individuals without mental illness.

It’s also interesting to read the comments that the article has generated. I really seemed to have pushed a few buttons.

I’m quite proud of the piece though, and it’s a vastly under-discussed and under-researched topic that affects huge numbers of people.

Link to SciAm piece ‘Ghost Stories: Visits from the Deceased’.
Link to Carlos Sluzki’s excellent article.
Link to DOI for same.

SciAmMind on brain injury, stimulation and diversity

The new Scientific American Mind has just arrived and has a number of fantastic freely available features articles online.

One of the most interesting articles is about post-accident brain treatments, used in the hours and minutes following severe injury, to protect the brain and minimize the chances of long-term cognitive problems.

The best hope for improved healing lies neither in new medications, which have been disappointing so far, nor in exotic fixes involving stem cells and neural regeneration, which are at least a decade away, researchers say. Rather the biggest gains will likely result from advances in emergency room and intensive care practices that curtail the secondary damage from TBI. The methods include slowing the brain’s metabolism with cooling techniques, removing part of the skull to relieve intracranial pressure and injecting an experimental polymer “glue” to repair damaged brain cells.

Other articles discuss mild traumatic brain injury and the role of emotional disturbance in the following impairments, deep brain stimulation, the difficulty of making life changing decisions after our 20s, and intelligence throughout the animal kingdom.

Link to latest SciAmMind.

Cheer up you waster

The Dummies series of books have been hugely successful guides to everything from fixing computers to learning languages although they’ve recently started to publish self-help books on psychological themes.

Unfortunately, they don’t fit quite as well into the general theme and hilariously, one of the titles is called Building Self-Confidence for Dummies.

UPDATE: Some great follow-ups grabbed from the comments (thanks skagedal and OmegaSupreme!):

There’s also the “Complete Idiot’s Guide” series, they have the similarly wonderfully named title “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Enhancing Self-Esteem”.

Troy McClure in the Simpsons had a self help video called “Get Confident, Stupid” !

Link to book details (thanks Catrin!).