I would have got away with it…

James Brewer suffered a stroke and, thinking he was dying, confessed to a murder he had committed thirty years earlier in his hospital bed. Like the majority of people who suffer stroke, he recovered and has now been charged with murder.

From BBC News:

A US man who thought he was dying and confessed to having killed a neighbour in 1977 has been charged with murder after making a recovery, US media say.

James Brewer could now face the death penalty over the unsolved killing in Tennessee 32 years ago, reports say.

Convinced he was dying after a stroke, Mr Brewer reportedly admitted to police he shot dead 20-year-old Jimmy Carroll.

The 58-year-old, who had fled Tennessee after the killing, was arrested after his condition improved, reports say.

Lest you find yourself in the same situation, you may like to know that the stroke mortality rates have fallen dramatically in recent decades.

Link to BBC News story.
Link to story in The Telegraph.

Medellín, mi corazón

I leave Medellín and the beautiful country of Colombia today after six fantastic months working at the Universidad de Antioquia and the Hospital Universitario San Vicente de Paúl.

My thanks to the everyone I worked with here for the fantastically warm welcome, the careful tuition in scientific Spanish and the fascinating conversations.

Colombia is a wonderfully friendly and stunningly beautiful country that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone, visitor or worker alike.

The picture is of one of the many beautiful mountains of Antioquia, in the ‘Paisa’ region.

Apologies for the likely sporadic updates over the next couple of days as I fly back to the UK and fight the jet lag.

Hasta pronto Colombia.

2009-03-20 Spike activity

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

Wired reports that Japanese ‘detergent suicide‘ technique creeps into U.S.

To the bunkers! BBC News has a video of a creepy but strangely seductive <a href="Female robot
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7946780.stm”>fembot from a Japanese tech firm.

Kraepelin´s Grandchildren is an interesting new Spanish-language brain blog.

Daniel Dennett does an interesting TED lecture on the counter-intuitive link between evolution and psychology.

Not Exactly Rocket Science covers a fascinating study finding that musical intervals actually reflect the sounds of our own speech.

I’ve been digging the Phrenologists Notebook blog recently. Looks plain, reads great.

BBC News has a great video clip from a Horizon documentary showing newborns doing ‘maths’ and how experiments test such young kids.

Thank you Neurotopia! Contrary to the popular headlines modafinil triggering dopamine activity in the nucleus accumbens does not make it addictive. People getting addicted to it does (which, so far, hasn’t happened).

BPS Research Digest has an excellent write-up of a review paper on successful non-drugs treatments for schizophrenia.

Completely false headline hides interesting write-up of study on anterior cingulate activation linked to religious belief in New Scientist.

New Scientist has a much better article on the effect of money on decision-making.

Am I normal? A new series of the wonderful BBC Radio 4 series has programmes on post-natal depression and gifted children.

Neurophilosophy reports on a study finding that brain waves predict successful memory for an event before it occurs.

The New York Times has an interesting article on Dr Alice Flaherty who studies the neuropsychology of empathy and has bipolar disorder.

A bill to promote the neurotechnology industry has been introduced into both the House and Senate of US Congress, reports Brain Waves.

Neuroscientist and author of a recent book on loneliness, John Cacioppo, is interviewed by Neuronarrative.

Scientific American has an interesting interview on delayed onset brain injuries with neurosurgeon Keith Black in the wake of Natasha Richardson’s death.

Predicting creditworthiness from photos of faces. The Economist covers another interesting psychological characteristics we can reliably read from the face (if averaged from a group’s responses).

PsyBlog has a piece on the ‘Cocktail Party Effect‘, presumably named in the days when psychologists had cocktail parties. Presumably, if discovered today it would be called the Friday after work down the pub effect.

The control centre of the US Army’s Human Terrain System and the role of the team in tackling military corruption is discussed by Wired.

The Frontal Cortex has a thought-provoking meditation on the value of neuroscience.

There’s been so much eye-opening stuff on Furious Seasons recently, I’ll just direct you to the entire blog.

Get me a mentally ill celebrity

The New Statesman has an interesting article by a press officer from one of the UK’s biggest mental health charities describing how press stories are put together and why it’s almost impossible to get any media interest without a ‘mentally ill celebrity’.

But there’s the rub. Shouldn’t we want to hear about these issues anyway? Do we really need to look to the stars? I started “selling” this campaign to journalists armed with a raft of compelling stories of real-life discrimination – the experienced business analyst who, after six months off with depression, made 150 job applications before an employer would give him a chance; the singer barred from joining a choir because she had had schizophrenia; the Cambridge graduate refused a chance to train as a teacher because of a history of mental health problems.

They’re interesting stories, emblematic of a stigma that still surrounds mental illness, and they matter to a great many people: one in four of us will have a mental health problem at some stage. And journalists know it. “Wow, yes, that is very interesting,” they say. “It’s dreadful, isn’t it? I know someone that happened to, actually, but . . . I was wondering if you could get me Mel C, y’know, Sporty Spice? Or Ruby Wax? Or, even better, do you have any new celebs who’ve had problems in the past?”

Link to New Statesman piece ‘Get me Sporty Spice’.

Permanently altering brain function, outside the skull

A surgical team from Italy have just reported that they’ve altered human brain function through neurosurgery conducted from outside the skull, by using beams of radiation.

The technique is known as radiosurgery and, in itself, isn’t novel. The team used the Cyberknife system, specifically designed to do this sort of operation.

However, the technique is typically used to treat brain tumours, and what is new is that the team have adapted this method to permanently knock out targeted areas to alter overall brain function.

They were inspired by deep brain stimulation and functional brain surgery. These aim to do a similar thing and are most commonly used to treat tremors and movement problems in Parkinson’s disease by altering the movement circuits in the brain.

This new operation aimed to do something similar, but with radiosurgery.

Their report appears in the journal Medical Physics, where they describe the treatment of two patients with, until then, untreatable disorders. One with chronic pain, stemming from nerve damage, and other with dystonia, a neurological disorder that causes certain muscles to painfully contract.

One of the challenges with this sort of operation is hitting exactly the right spot, and to achieve the necessary accuracy the team built a 3D computer model of the key areas from the brain scans which they then used to electronically direct the radiosurgery equipment.

The patient with dystonia had a pallidotomy, where part of his basal ganglia was ablated (destroyed), whereas the patient with chronic pain had a thalamotomy, taking out a section of his medial thalamus.

Both patients recovered well, significantly improved and showed no major side-effects at 15 months.

The image on the left shows where the radiation beams entered the head during the operation on the patient with chronic pain.

Link to research report.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Psychotherapy with the Amish

Photo from Wikipedia. Click for sourceNPR has a fascinating segment on psychotherapist Jim Cates, who works with Amish youth who are experiencing the turbulent time of ‘Rumspringa‘ – a period when they get to experience non-Amish life so they can decide whether they want to commit to their parents’ culture and traditions.

The Amish are a community based around Anabaptist Christianity who, to varying degrees, refuse modern technology and the common social practices of North America.

However, during the time of Rumspringa, the youth are free to wear modern clothes, use technology, and may experiment with drink, drugs and sex – on the basis that the Amish want their youth to freely enter their tradition having had the opportunity to experience the alternative.

For some young people, this causes some difficulties, not least with some who encounter difficulties with drink, drugs or emotional adjustment and Jim Cates is a psychotherapist who helps the young people work through the issues.

He describes how he needs to take a radically different approach when conducting psychotherapy with Amish youth, owing to the markedly different way of thinking, particularly about the role of the individual in society.

Cates notes that while traditional American culture is individualist, Amish culture is strongly collectivist, to the point where talking about yourself is seen as prideful and individual work without the involvement of the family is at best uncomfortable and at worst inconceivable.

In the NPR piece, Cates gives some fascinating insights into his take on Amish psychology and discusses the innovative approach he needs when working with the culture.

It’s one of the most interesting and surprising radio pieces I’ve heard in a while, and is by the excellent Alix Spiegel, who also produced the gripping 81 words.

Link to NPR ‘One Man Tackles Psychotherapy For The Amish’.

Dan Ariely on the psychology of cheating

Behavioural economist Dan Ariely gives a fantastic 15 minute TED lecture on the psychology of cheating that explores numerous fascinating and counter-intuitive influences on how we bend the truth for personal benefit.

Ariely discusses some curious social influences, including the fact that seeing someone else cheat may actually decrease the general cheating of the group, but only if they perceive they are part of a different or rival group. Seeing someone cheat who is part of your ‘in-group’ seems to reliably increase dishonesty.

He also notes various effects of changing the form of the benefit. Simply making the reward tokens that can be exchanged for money, rather than just directly paying, greatly increases cheating, even though the value is identical in both cases.

Ariel does some fascinating research and is the author of Predictably Irrational, an excellent book which I thoroughly recommend.

The talk is similarly enjoyable and Ariely makes links between his own studies on cheating and the current financial meltdown.

Link to Dan Ariely’s TED talk.

Sweet anaesthesia and the mystery of consciousness

Discover Magazine has an excellent article on the science of anaesthesia and why doctors need to struggle with the problem of consciousness to make someone comfortably numb.

If you’re not familiar some of the mysteries of anaesthesia, you may be surprised to know that we don’t actually know how most anaesthetics work and we have no reliable way of telling whether someone is unconscious.

This is important because general anaesthesia usually involves two types of drug, muscle relaxants and hypnotics. It’s possible that the muscle relaxants have their paralysing effect but the hypnotics don’t fully work, so you’re awake and aware, but don’t respond when you’re touched or talked to.

Hence anaesthetists would love a device which says whether someone is concious or not, but unfortunately, divining consciousness from the brain is one of the hardest problems in science. So, they’ve come up with various other methods:

Sometimes the anesthesiologist will use a blood pressure cuff on a patient’s arm to block the muscle relaxants in the bloodstream. Then the doctor asks the patient to squeeze a hand.

This sort of test can distinguish between a patient who is awake and one who is out cold. But at the borderline of consciousness, it is not very precise. The inability to raise your hand, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are unconscious. Even a light dose of anesthesia can interfere with your capacity to keep new pieces of information in your brain, so you may not respond to a command because you immediately forgot what you were going to do. On the other hand, squeezing an anesthesiologist’s hand may not mean you’re wide awake. Some patients who can squeeze a hand will later have no memory of being aware.

Seeking a more reliable measuring stick, some researchers have started measuring brain waves. When you are awake, your brain produces fast, small waves of electrical activity. When you are under total anesthesia, your brain waves become deep and slow. If you get enough of certain anesthetics, your brain waves eventually go flat. Most anesthesiologists monitor their patients using a machine known as a bispectral index monitor, which reads brain waves from electrodes on a patient’s scalp and produces a score from 100 to 0. But these machines aren’t precise either. Sometimes patients who register as unconscious can still squeeze a hand on command.

The article then goes on to discuss some fascinating neuroscience studies that use anaesthesia to try and understand what changes in the brain as someone slips into unconsciousness.

It’s a great read and an interesting look into what you might called ‘applied consciousness research’.

Link to ‘Could a Dose of Ether Contain the Secret to Consciousness?’

Dominant chemicals

Photo by Flickr user Ed Yourdon. Click for sourceAnthropologist Helen Fisher has done some fascinating work on the neuroscience of love and romantic relationships, but she hooked up with the dating site Match.com a few years back and seems to have lost the plot a bit, or at the very least, is being taken for a ride by their PR department.

Match.com’s press releases regularly get in the news as ‘science’ stories and the latest ones are doozies. You could not think of a more prefect storm of celebrity gossip, relationships, and junk science.

People have one of four chemicals in their brain that moulds romantic chemistry, scientists explain.

In ‘builders’ like Aniston, serotonin is the dominant chemical, making them calm and cautious.

‘Explorers’, like Brad Pitt, meanwhile, are led by dopamine, creating a more spontaneous and risk-taking romancer.

And, yes, you’ve guessed it, Brad’s current partner Angelina Jolie is an ‘explorer’, too.

Professor Helen Fisher, an expert in the science of love, said: ‘It’s possible to scientifically understand why people partner better with certain types.’

Possible, but presumably, unprofitable.

Actually, there has been some work correlating relationship or attachment style to the genetics of neurotransmitter receptors.

However, the concept of a ‘dominant chemical’ makes no sense at all and Fisher’s categories have been made up by her and are not used by anyone else.

Saying that, my dominant chemical is caffeine. Which makes my ideal partner… an energy drink?

Link to study summary on relationship style and genetics.
Link to study summary on attachment style and genetics.

(Thanks Petra!)

Wiring and plumbing in the brain

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience has a great two page article that nicely summarises the thinking about how blood flow measured by brain scans relates to the workings of the neurons.

No one with common sense would believe that in a house, water movements in pipes could tell you how many lamps are on and how much fuel is used for heating. Surprisingly most neuroscientists are convinced that in the brain monitoring local cerebral blood flow (CBF) what I call plumbing, is a reliable surrogate method to localize electrical neuronal activity and monitor metabolic events.

The piece is by neuroscientist Jean Rossier, and he discusses the two main theories of how blood flow relates to what the neurons are doing.

The ‘metabolic hypothesis’ assumes there is a causal link between how much energy the neurons need, in the form of glucose, and the subsequent regulation of blood flow in the brain. In other words, the neurons signal the need for energy, which is delivered later.

The ‘neurogenic hypothesis’ hypothesis, suggest that blood flow can be ‘pre-ordered’, in anticipation of neural activity.

Needless to say, it’s important to understand the exact relation between the operation of the neurons and blood flow, because brain scanning studies typically measure blood flow to infer the working of neurons and hence the relationship to cognitive or mental processing.

The Frontiers in Human Neuroscience article is a concise piece which discuss the neuroscience of this link, and covers some of the most recent studies which have attempted to make sense of what brain scans tell us when we’re doing psychology experiments.

Link to article ‘Wiring and plumbing in the brain’.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Freud association

So what is it with all the Freud impersonators on Twitter? I’ve found six so far:

Sigmund Freud. Austrian psychiatrist.

Sigmund Freud. I am the father of psychoanalysis.

sigmund freud.

Sigmund Freud. How does that make you feel?

sigmund_freud. [In French].

sigmund. [In Russian].

If you’d rather another style of analysis, there are also Jacques Lacan and Carl Jung impersonators.

Everyone else is using it to free associate and they’re using it for wish fulfilment. What gives?

The PTSD Trap

Scientific American has a knock-out article that questions whether the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder is a coherent psychological concept or whether it is actually making the situation worse for soldiers with post-combat mental health problems.

As we’ve noted before, PTSD is a controversial diagnosis for two major reasons. The first is that it is not clear that the diagnosis describes anything different from other forms of anxiety and depression, except for that fact that it is related to a specific traumatic incident.

The second is that the diagnosis was largely introduced after pressure from veterans’ lobbying groups after the Vietnam war. In fact, PTSD was originally called ‘post-Vietnam syndrome’ and there are concerns that while it was politically expedient at the time, the concept doesn’t lead to good mental health care.

In fact, combat stress reactions have taken various forms through the years of which PTSD is the latest reincarnation.

The SciAm article tackles research in the US military suggesting that the syndrome is over-diagnosed and that the treatment plan is counter-productive and actually encourages people to remain disabled.

But one of the most interesting things about the article is that it tackles the one of the core features of the diagnosis – that the anxiety symptoms are directly tied to a specific traumatic event.

Many people who are diagnosed with PTSD turn out not to have been traumatised by the event they later attribute the trauma to, or may not have even been traumatised at all.

J. Alexander Bodkin, a psychiatrist at Harvard’s McLean Hospital, screened 90 clinically depressed patients separately for PTSD symptoms and for trauma, then compared the results. First he and a colleague used a standardized screening interview to assess symptoms. Then two other PTSD diagnosticians, ignorant of the symptom reports, used another standard interview to see which patients had ever experienced trauma fitting DSM-IV criteria.

If PTSD arose from trauma, the patients with PTSD symptoms should have histories of trauma, and those with trauma should show more PTSD. It was not so. Although the symptom screens rated 70 of the 90 patients positive for PTSD, the trauma screens found only 54 who had suffered trauma: the diagnosed PTSD “cases” outnumbered those who had experienced traumatic events. Things got worse when Bodkin compared the diagnoses one on one. If PTSD required trauma, then the 54 trauma-exposed patients should account for most of the 70 PTSD-positive patients. But the PTSD-symptomatic patients were equally distributed among the trauma-positive and the trauma-negative groups. The PTSD rate had zero relation to the trauma rate. It was, Bodkin observed, “a scientifically unacceptable situation.”

This does not necessarily mean the people are lying, but may simply be attributing true symptoms to an unlikely source.

It’s a wonderfully thought-provoking article that’s sure to ruffle a few feathers.

The writer, David Dobbs, has also put a load of background material and links to the relevant studies on his blog, so you can get a more in-depth perspective if it sparks your interest in the area.

Link to article ‘Soldiers’ Stress: What Doctors Get Wrong about PTSD’.
Link to David Dobb’s background material for the article.

Cigarette smoking lady cops to read minds

The International Herald Tribune has an unintentionally funny opinion piece where a rather poorly informed journalist publicly wets his pants about ‘thought-decoding brain-scan technology’ which, apparently, the police could be carrying in the future so they’ll know if you’re thinking rude things about them.

When the police stopped me for running a red light recently, I was thinking “Don’t you cops have anything better to do?” But the words that came out of my mouth were a lot more guarded, something like, “Sorry, I thought it was green.” Sometimes it’s good to play the dumb foreigner.

The policewoman, a tough lady smoking a cigarette, glared at me. Was she reading my mind? No, I guess not, because she only gave me a warning. But beware, in a few years she might actually carry a device that can do that.

Research is rapidly advancing to allow thought-decoding through brain-scan technology, and it scares me to death. I don’t want anyone else in my head, and certainly not the police.

It’s a masterpiece of superficial reading of the scientific evidence and interpreting it in the most unrealistic and panicky way possible.

Link to IHT piece ‘Watch what you think’.

JAMA editors pressure antidepressant whistle blower

This is both odd and slightly disturbing. The Wall Street Journal reports that a medical researcher has been publicly insulted and allegedly threatened by the editors of the medical heavyweight Journal of the American Medical Association for calling out an antidepressant study for undisclosed conflicts of interest.

Jonathan Leo, a professor of neuroanatomy at Lincoln Memorial University, wrote a succinct and reasonably worded letter to the British Medical Journal noting that a study on the use of the antidepressant escitalopram (Lexapro) in stroke had concluded that the drug was better than other treatments, when in fact the data supported no such claims.

He also noted that the authors had failed to disclose their ties to the drug makers Forest Laboratories.

For his trouble he was phoned by the JAMA editors who allegedly made some academic threats to him, his students, and his superiors.

The story was followed-up by the Wall Street Journal who contacted the editor-in-chief Catherine DeAngelis. Surprisingly, DeAngelis publicly insulted Leo and is quoted by the WSJ saying:

“This guy is a nobody and a nothing” she said of Leo. “He is trying to make a name for himself. Please call me about something important.” She added that Leo “should be spending time with his students instead of doing this.”

When asked if she called his superiors and what she said to them, DeAngelis said “it is none of your business.” She added that she did not threaten Leo or anyone at the school.

This would perhaps be less shocking had the authors of the study in question not publicly apologised for omitting conflicts of interest and confirmed that the drug was not a superior treatment in subsequent letters to JAMA.

Ironically, DeAngelis has a reputation for closely monitoring conflicts of interest and has made JAMA a leader in requiring such admissions from authors.

Furious Seasons has been keeping tabs on the situation and as usual had the scoop before the WSJ got involved.

Link to WSJ piece “JAMA Editor Calls Critic a ‚ÄòNobody and a Nothing‚Äô”.

Is psychiatry a religion?

Photo by Flickr user Jillian Anne Photography. Click for sourceThe Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine just published a recent, and, presumably, slightly tongue in cheek article, drawing parallels between psychiatry, clinical psychology and traditional religious practices.

In reality, it’s not really attempting to address the question of whether psychiatry is a form of religion. Instead, it’s really asking whether psychiatry is now fulfilling some of the social roles that, for many people, were previously occupied by religion.

These include parallels between confession and therapy, proselytization and mental health campaigns, religious hierarchy and medical authority, sacraments and medication, and holy texts and diagnostic manuals.

The ‘psychiatry is a religion’ argument is weak, however, as despite similarities in some functions, none of these are core features of religion. As identified by cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer, the single common feature of all religious is a preoccupation with unseen sentient beings, of which psychiatry says nothing.

In fact, mainstream psychiatry remains firmly materialist – usually re-explaining experiences that many people attribute to spirits, forces or unseen influences as biological dysfunction. So, in the most fundamental sense, the practice of psychiatry is typically contra-religious.

You could argue that this is ‘replacing’ religion through colonising the spiritual sphere of explanation, but this makes it no more a religion than physics or evolutionary biology.

However, the article is interesting as it reflects an almost extinct genre in mainstream medical debate – a Thomas Szasz style view of psychiatry as a medical intrusion into an essentially social phenomenon. Namely, the classification and regulation of deviance, and the easing of distress caused by social maladjustment and existential crises.

The piece is probably better read as a concern about how medical theories have become the standard explanation for problems of human living, to the point where we assume that psychiatry can be an organising force in society.

Link to article ‘Is psychiatry a religion?’
Link to PubMed entry for same.