Lithium levels in drinking water linked to fewer suicides

Photo by Flickr user Today is a good day. Click for sourceHigher levels of naturally occurring lithium in the water supply are associated with fewer suicides in the local population, reports a study just published in The British Journal of Psychiatry.

Lithium is one of the fundamental elements, but is also used by psychiatrists as one the most effective drug treatment for mood disorders, in the form of lithium carbonate and lithium citrate, where it is also known to reduce the risk of suicide.

This new study suggests that even trace amounts might have an influence on the whole population level, and this is not the first time this link has been made.

A 1990 study found higher levels of lithium in drinking water were linked to fewer incidences of crimes, suicides, and arrests related to drug addictions.

This leads to the intriguing question of whether lithium should be added to the water supply as a public health measure.

The idea of adding psychoactive substances to the water supply sounds creepy, but some might argue that if we add fluoride simply to prevent tooth decay, boosting lithium concentrations to the high end of naturally occurring levels to reduce deaths could be justified.

Philosophers and conspiracy theorists start your engines.

Link to BJP lithium study.
Link to DOI entry for same.

Extreme altitude climbs and the Sherpa brain

It’s now well known that high altitude mountain climbing damages the brain and causes a marked reduction in mental functioning.

I naively assumed this was true for everyone but I just found an intriguing 1996 study that compared brain function of lowland mountain climbers and Nepalese Sherpas after ascent to high altitude, which found that the Sherpas suffer few of these neurological problems.

Are Himalayan Sherpas better protected against brain damage associated with extreme altitude climbs?

Garrido E, Segura R, Capdevila A, Pujol J, Javierre C, Ventura JL.

Clin Sci (Lond). 1996 Jan;90(1):81-5.

1. The potential risk of brain damage when low-landers attempt to climb the highest summits is a well-known fact. However, very little is known about what occurs to Himalayan natives, perfectly adapted to high altitude, when performing the same type of activity.

2. Taking into account their long-life climbing experience at extreme altitudes, we examined seven of the most recognized Sherpas with the aim of performing a comprehensive neurological evaluation based on medical history, physical examination and magnetic resonance brain imaging. We compared them with one group of 21 lowland elite climbers who had ascended to altitudes of over 8000 m, and another control group of 21 healthy individuals who had never been exposed to high altitude.

3. While all of the lowland climbers presented psychoneurological symptoms during or after the expeditions, and 13 of them (61%) showed magnetic resonance abnormalities (signs of mild cortical atrophy and/or periventricular high-intensity signal areas in the white matter), only one Sherpa (14%) showed similar changes in the scans, presenting neurological symptoms at extreme altitude. The neurological examination was normal in all three groups, and no neuroimaging abnormalities were detected in the control group.

4. The significant differences, in both clinical and neuroimaging terms, suggest that Sherpa highlanders have better brain protection when exposed to extreme altitude. Although the key to protection against cerebral hypoxia cannot be established, it is possible that an increase in the usually short period of acclimatization could minimize brain damage in those low-landers who attempt the highest summits without supplementary oxygen.

Link to study of neurology of lowland climbers and Sherpas.

NeuroPod oscilates 100 year-old autistic robots

The latest edition of Nature’s excellent neuroscience podcast NeuroPod has just the wires and discusses using light to control the brain, a quite remarkable breakthrough in the genetics of autism, emotional robots and neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, the first Nobel prizewinner to turn 100.

The highlight is probably the section about Rita Levi-Montalcini who jointly won the Nobel prize for her discovery of nerve growth factor, a protein that is known to be key in neuroplasticity.

Although actually, it’s one of the most interesting and varied NeuroPod’s I’ve heard in a while, which is saying something for a programme which is usually on top form. Enjoy.

Link to NeuroPod page with streaming and download.
mp3 of April edition.

Blast from the past

New Scientist covers the debate on the causes of the non-specific emotional and cognitive symptoms that are appearing at an alarming rate in US soldiers who have been caught up in blasts while on service.

The controversy centres on whether the symptoms of ‘post concussional syndrome’ (which can include depression, irritability, concentration difficulties, headaches and reduced memory function) are caused by damage to the brain or from shock waves of the explosion, or are largely triggered by an emotional reaction to the stress of war.

It’s an interesting debate, not least because it’s almost 100 years since almost exactly the same debate raged over shell shock.

This is from an excellent article by medical historian Edgar Jones and colleagues who discuss the similarities between the ‘shell shock’ debates, and the current controversy:

Frederick Mott, then Britain‚Äôs leading neuropathologist, who was recruited by the War Office to discover the etiology of the disorder, argued that in extreme cases shell shock could be fatal if intense commotion affected “the delicate colloidal structures of the living tissues of the brain and spinal cord,” arresting “the functions of the vital centers in the medulla”. It was also speculated that the disorder resulted from damage to the CNS from carbon monoxide released by the partial detonation of a shell or mortar. In other words, shell shock was formulated as an organic problem even though the pathology remained unclear.

However, research conducted in 1915 and 1916 by Myers, consultant psychologist to the British Expeditionary Force, led to a new hypothesis. Based on his own observations, an increasing appreciation of the stress of trench warfare, and the finding that many shell-shocked soldiers had been nowhere near an explosion but had identical symptoms to those who had, Myers suggested a psychological explanation. For these cases, the term “emotional,” rather than “commotional,” shock was proposed. The psychological explanation gained ground over the neurological in part because it offered the British Army an opportunity to return shell-shocked soldiers to active duty.

As mentioned by the NewSci two big studies have recently found strikingly similar results: many soldier who have the symptoms of ‘post concussional syndrome’ were never actually in an explosion.

Extreme stress and trauma, of whatever type, seems to predict the likelihood of someone having the symptoms better than actually being caught up in an explosion.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Link to NewSci ‘Brain shock: The new Gulf War syndrome’.
Link to ‘Shell Shock and Mild Traumatic Brain Injury: A Historical Review’.

Voodoo II: this time it isn’t personal

More analysis problems with brain scanning research have come to light in a new study just released in Nature Neuroscience and expertly covered by the BPS Research Digest. It demonstrates that the common practice of using the same data set to identify an area of interest and then home in on this area to test further ideas can lead to misleading results.

This usually occurs when brain activation is compared between two conditions where participants are doing different tasks. A whole brain analysis looks for statistically significant differences at every point in the brain.

It’s very complete, but because of the large amount of data, but the data also contains a large amount of noise, so it’s hard to find areas which you can confidently say are more active in one condition than the other.

An alternative approach is to only look at activation in one area of the brain, perhaps an area where it is most likely to occur based on what we already know about how the brain works. This is called region of interest analysis (often done with the wonderfully named ‘MarsBaR‘ tool) and because the data set is much smaller, it is more likely to find a reliable difference.

However, some studies do a whole brain analysis to find likely areas, and then home in using region of analysis tools to examine them ‘more closely’. This ‘magnifying glass’ metaphor seems intuitive, but because your using the same data set to create and test hypothesis, it can be problematic.

It’s like shooting arrows randomly into a wall and then drawing a target around ones which landed together. Someone looking at wall afterwards might think the archer was a good shot, but this impression is caused by the after-the-event painting of the target, and the same problem could affect these brain imaging studies.

After the recent furore over the ‘voodoo correlations’ study, this new study is markedly more measured in its language and doesn’t list individual offenders.

Indeed, the ‘Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience’ paper was actually retitled on publication to ‘Puzzlingly high correlations in fMRI studies of emotion, personality, and social cognition’, presumably to avoid stirring the pot any further.

However, this new study takes a similar tack, demonstrating through several careful simulations that ‘double dipping’ a data set is likely to distort the results just due to statistical problems.

From the BPS Research Digest:

Nikolaus Kriegeskorte and colleagues analysed all the fMRI studies published in Nature, Science, Nature Neuroscience, Neuron and Journal of Neuroscience, in 2008, and found that 42 per cent of these 134 papers were guilty of performing at least one non-independent selective analysis – what Kriegeskorte’s team dub “double dipping”.

This is the procedure, also condemned by the Voodoo paper, in which researchers first perform an all-over analysis to find a brain region(s) that responds to the condition of interest, before going on to test their hypothesis on data collected in just that brain region. The cardinal sin is that the same data are used in both stages.

A similarly flawed approach can be seen in brain imaging studies that claim to be able to discern a presented stimulus from patterns of activity recorded in a given brain area. These are the kind of studies that lead to “mind reading” headlines in the popular press. In this case, the alleged statistical crime is to use the same data for the training phase of pattern extraction and the subsequent hypothesis testing phase.

Link to BPS Research Digest on the fMRI analysis problems.
Link to PubMed entry for study.

Stylish psychotherapy magazine launches

Contemporary Psychotherapy is a new magazine dedicated to the practice of psychological treatment of all types and the current debates in this sometimes hotly contested field.

The first issue contains articles on the future of psychotherapy, CBT in North America, how psychiatrists deal with somatic or psychogenic symptoms and the challenges in conducting psychotherapy with asylum seekers, to name but a few.

It makes a good complement to the US-based Psychotherapy Networker magazine, it’s stylishly put together, you can download it for free as a PDF file, and long may it continue as it’s off to a brilliant start.

Link to Contemporary Psychotherapy with PDF download.

Encephalon 68, 69 and my memory is like a sieve

The 69th edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience carnival has just appeared on Brain Stimulant and… dear God, I just realise I missed the 68th edition on the excellent Ouroboros as well, so here are both for your reading pleasure.

A couple of my favourites include a fantastic post on Neuroanthropology post entitled “Who you callin‚Äô a ‚Äòneuroconstructivist‚Äô punk?!” (actually, I added the punk, but you get the idea), and a Neurocritic article on a curious neurological condition where people lose the ability to correctly point at a named body part.

I always say there’s plenty more, but this time there’s a whole load more where that came from, thanks to my slightly faulty memory.

Link to Encephalon 68.
Link to Encephalon 69.

A Trance of Pleasure

Photo by Flickr user ubiquity_zh. Click for sourceA 2003 study in Epilepsy and Behavior has some descriptions of the ecstatic seizures experienced by some patients with epilepsy.

They include intense erotic and spiritual experiences, feelings of become close to and blending with other people, and some sensations that couldn’t be fully captured in words.

I’ve put some of the descriptions below because they sound absolutely wonderful:

Patient 1
The first seizure occurred during a concert when he was a teenager. He remembers perceiving short moments of an indefinable feeling. Such episodes recurred and a few months later evolved into a GTC [generalized tonic–clonic seizure]. He characterizes these sensations as “a trance of pleasure.” “It is like an emotional wave striking me again and again. I feel compelled to obey a sort of phenomenon. These sensations are outside the spectrum of what I ever have experienced outside a seizure.” He also describes cold shivering, increased muscle tension, and a delicious taste, and he swallows repeatedly. He enjoys the sensations and is absorbed in them in a way that he can barely hear when spoken to. When in a particular, relaxed mood, he can sometimes induce seizures by “opening up mentally” and contracting muscles. He denies any religious aspects of the symptoms. “It’s the phenomenon, the feeling, the fit taking control.” It lasts a few minutes and afterward he is tired with difficulties expressing himself for about 1 hour.

Patient 6
This man has a multifaceted symptomatology and a tendency to interpret bodily sensations as supernatural phenomena. Nevertheless, from the beginning of his forties, he experienced distinct, stereotypical attacks with a “change of concept of the surrounding world.” He reports an “oscillating erotic sensation, like twinkling polar light” in his pelvic region and down the inside of his thighs. This is described as different from sexual excitement, more like “an erogenous charge of the skin.” He may also have a clairvoyant feeling of a “telepathic contact with a divine power.” These sensations are of short duration and may be accompanied by faintness and followed by drowsiness. With carbamazepine treatment, the frequency of these attacks has been considerably reduced.

Patient 11
The attacks started in his first school year. The experiences are beyond what can be described in words. “I can sense the colours red and orange without seeing them. The feeling has an erotic aspect. It starts in the stomach and spreads upwards. It is pleasant, but not similar to ordinary joy. It is like an explosion.” In the close presence of another person, he can feel a sort of peculiar unification. An intense déjà vu sensation, a queer taste, and “gooseflesh” are also components of the seizures. As a child he was surprised that his friends denied having similar feelings, and he learned to keep them to himself. Sometimes these attacks evolved into CPSs with reduced consciousness and complex automatisms and afterward he had transient difficulties speaking. Before the diagnosis of epilepsy was made in his late teens, he was referred to a psychiatrist. A right-sided temporal lobe calcification was diagnosed by computed tomography at about 30 years, but he refused surgery. At 42, an expansion in the same region was found by MRI, and he was operated for an anaplastic oligodendroglioma. He was seizure-free for 6 years until recurrence of the tumor.

One of the striking things about epilepsy is how different each person’s experience of having a seizure can be.

While it is stereotypically assumed to be a negative experience, some aspects can be remarkably beautiful.

The Russian author Dostoyevsky famously said of his epilepsy “I would experience such joy as would be inconceivable in ordinary life – such joy that no one else could have any notion of. I would feel the most complete harmony in myself and in the whole world and this feeling was so strong and sweet that for a few seconds of such bliss I would give ten or more years of my life, even my whole life perhaps.”

There are several more case descriptions in the article, all of which have some aspect which touch at least the edge of ecstasy, if not the very heart of the experience.

Link to article.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Beautiful butterfly brain

This is a beautiful butterfly brain greetings card, created by graphic designer TweeK. I’d never would have imagined that an MRI scan and butterflies would go together so effortlessly, and the effect is quite stunning.

You can buy copies of the card online, so you can impress the hardest-to-impress of your brain-inclined friends, or you can just visit the page to see it in more detail.

I can’t stop looking at it.


Link to TweeK’s butterfly brain greetings card.

Dodging the border agency of the brain

Photo from Wikipedia. Click for sourceI just noticed that neurotechnology analyst Zack Lynch has a forthcoming article in Epilepsy and Behavior on the latest developments in the commercial brain science field. Avid neuroscience fans may be familiar with most of it but the section on new technologies to cross the blood-brain barrier was eye-opening.

The blood-brain barrier (BBB) is a sieve-like border crossing that allows only certain molecules to pass from the blood into the brain.

It’s remarkably restrictive and many molecules are just too big to get past, meaning that many drugs that could affect the brain are virtually useless, simply because they can’t cross the border.

This has led neuroscientists to think of ways of smuggling, tunnelling and sneaking this these molecules past the barrier, and Lynch’s article lists some of the latest technologies which aim to jump the fence.

• Implantable devices: Implantable pumps bypass the blood–brain barrier (BBB) and deliver highly accurate amounts of drugs to specific sites in the brain or spinal cord.

• Expression systems: A French company is circumventing the BBB using encapsulated cell technology (ECT), a polymer implant containing cells that provide continuous, long-term release of the therapeutic protein to the brain or eye.

• Receptor-mediated transport: Receptors that transport nutrients to the brain from the blood can be tricked into transporting therapeutic chemicals, peptides, and proteins across the BBB. Insulin, transferrin, and lipoproteins, for example, cross the BBB by facilitated transport, and can be combined with therapeutic proteins or other molecules to promote access to the brain.

• Cell-penetrating peptides: During the past decade, several arginine-rich peptides have been described, such as SynB vectors, which allow for intracellular delivery and BBB transport. The mechanism for this transport is unknown. A Swiss company is using cell-penetrating peptides to develop treatments for stroke and myocardial infarction.

• Focused ultrasound: Some research shows that focused ultrasound can temporarily open the BBB in a targeted area for a window of time. A seed stage company is working to commercialize this technology and improve it for use in humans.

• Nanoparticle formulations: Nanoparticle formulations refer to therapeutics encapsulated in nanoscale particles that can pass the BBB. Although there is great interest in using nanotechnology to improve neuropharmaceutical delivery to the brain, it will take some time to overcome challenges of this platform, including the need for intravenous delivery, manufacturing, and clearance by the liver.

Link to summary of article.

Turn left at the surge of excitement

We covered Christian Nold’s brilliant project to create emotion maps of cities before, and I had the pleasure of going to the launch of his new book on Emotional Cartography on Friday. It’s awesome for lots of reasons, but one of the best ones is that you can download it free from the project website.

Nold came up with the idea of fusing a GSR machine, a skin conductance monitor that measures arousal, and a GPS machine, to allow stress to be mapped to particular places. He then gets people to walk round and creates maps detailing high arousal areas of cities.

The biomapping website has some of the fantastic maps from the project.

His book, called Emotional Cartography: Technologies of the Self contains some of the wonderful maps images, but also chapters by artists, psychogeographers, designers, cultural researchers, futurologists and neuroscientists who examine the relationship between space and the self.

One of the chapters is written by our very own Tom Stafford who explores the neuroscience of the self through a case study of an amnesic patient from the scientific literature called SS, who seemed to be unaware of his own depression because of his profound memory problems. Tom also gave a great talk at the launch, which you can also read online.

If you want to read the books, and I highly recommend it, you can download the book as a screen quality or print quality PDF, and its released under a Creative Commons license so you can take it to your nearest copy shop if you want a hard copy.

Link to Emotional Cartography website.
Link to Biomapping website.

The beautiful baby brain

Jonah Lehrer has an excellent piece in today’s Boston Globe about how babies’ brains develop and what psychologists are starting to understand about the infant mind.

It’s largely riffing on the work of Alison Gopnik, one of the world’s leading developmental psychologists, who has long argued that babies might be more conscious than adults and that we learn to filter the world and mentally manage its initial chaos.

While this less focused form of attention makes it more difficult to stay on task – preschoolers are easily distracted – it also comes with certain advantages. In many circumstances, the lantern mode of attention can actually lead to improvements in memory, especially when it comes to recalling information that seemed incidental at the time.

Consider this memory task designed by John Hagen, a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan. A child is given a deck of cards and shown two cards at a time. The child is told to remember the card on the right and to ignore the card on the left. Not surprisingly, older children and adults are much better at remembering the cards they were told to focus on, since they’re able to direct their attention. However, young children are often better at remembering the cards on the left, which they were supposed to ignore. The lantern casts its light everywhere.

I’m a bit sceptical of one bit of the article though, where it claims that babies have more neurons than adults, as researchers have only very recently attempted to make this estimate and, in fact, found that babies and adults have about the same in the cortex, which makes up the vast majority of the brain.

In terms of synapses, connections between neurons, this varies on the age of the infant. For example, have a look at this graph of synapse density as we grow, taken from a study of the human cortex.

Newborns start with fewer synapses than adults but this number rockets, so by six months of age we have approximately twice as many connections. This tails off as the brain prunes connections on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis.

I’m always slightly awestruck whenever I view that graph as it is a vivid illustration of the incredibly rapid changes changes that take place as we grow and learn to make sense of the world.

It’s this same sense of awe that the Boston Globe manages to capture as it explains how understanding the baby’s brain can help us make sense of the adult mind.

Link to Boston Globe article ‘Inside the baby mind’.

Should we be trying to stop dream violence?

The Onion has a video of a funny spoof news report on “Should We Be Doing More To Reduce The Graphic Violence In Our Dreams?”

It gets a little bit gory towards the end, so if that’s not your thing, you may prefer another one of their recent reports on the news that “70 percent of all praise is sarcastic”.

Link to ‘Should We Be Doing More To Reduce The Violence In Our Dreams?’
Link to ’70 Percent of All Praise is Sarcastic’.

CIA psychology through the declassified memos

I’ve been reading the recently released CIA memos on the interrogation of ‘war on terror’ detainees. The memos make clear that the psychological impact of the process is the most important aim of interrogation, from the moment the detainee is captured through the various phases of interrogation.

Although disturbing, they’re interesting for what they reveal about the CIA’s psychologists and their approach to interrogation.

General framework
It is clear that empirical psychological science is core to interrogation-based intelligence gathering on both the individual and general approach levels. In clinical psychology, this is known as the scientist-practitioner model, where scientific research is used to understand types of problems and design interventions, but also where an iterative hypothesis-testing information-gathering process is applied to each individual.

The memos state that psychologists are involved in both directing interrogations and mental health assessments, making it likely that the majority of military psychologists are originally trained as clinical psychologists.

Indeed, after a visit to Guantanamo Bay, American Psychological Association president Ronald Levant wrote about his trip in an article for Military Psychology noting “I turned to see a former doctoral student in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University (NSU), who is now a military psychologist”. NSU strongly emphasises the scientist-practitioner model and it this style of clinical psychologist which probably makes up the bulk of the CIA’s ‘Behavioral Science Consultation Teams’ (BSCTs).

It is also clear that the CIA are interested in finding out two types of information: one, intelligence from the detainees, and two, which methods are most effective in doing so. It is interesting that all references to the impact and effectiveness of the interrogation methods are based on single cases (x has started giving intelligence after the use of y) or data from the US Military’s own SERE interrogation resistance programme, run on its own personnel.

There is no significant blacked out text in these sections, indicating that there are unlikely to be other key sources of evidence (such as secret research on the effectiveness of torture). In other words, Guantanamo and other interrogation facilities are as much interrogation labs as they are interrogation centres.

Integrated physiological monitoring
The memo [pdf] that discusses the interrogation of ‘al-Quaeda operative’ Abu Zubaydah has an interesting part where it states that “in an initial confrontational incident, Zubaydah showed signs of sympathetic nervous system arousal”. This would suggest that the detainees are wired-up to a system that detects physiological arousal – probably GSR, blood pressure, heart rate or a similar combination.

This would allow the interrogators to look for patterns in stress responses and focus on areas where stress was present despite an outward appearance of calm. The memo also notes that Zubaydah “appears to have a fear of insects”. Assuming that detainees would not voluntarily disclose their phobias, we can assume that likely phobias are detected by exposing the detainee to photos or situations related to common fears and then monitoring the detainee for abnormal stress responses.

The summary of the psychological profile of Zubaydah is notable for the fact it doesn’t use the psychoanalytic or psychodynamic language more favoured by FBI profilers, instead using the relatively plain language of cognitive and psychometric approaches. For example, it describes his “coping resources”, rather than his ‘defences’, “problems” rather than ‘conflicts’ and makes no reference to any unconscious desires or motivations.

The profile is apparently “based on interviews with Zubaydah, observations of him, and information collected from other sources such as intelligence and press reports”. As with the FBI, there is likely to be formal psychometric methods for analysing self-written text to help inform the personality profile, although the complete profile is probably put together by a psychologist who integrates the various sources of information with only a conservative level of interpretation.

Confused understanding of ‘learned helplessness’
A couple of the memos note that the whole interrogation procedure and environment is designed “to create a state of learned helplessness“. This is a concept originally developed by psychologist Martin Seligman who found that dogs given inescapable electric shocks would eventually just give up trying to avoid them and remain passive while electrocuted. The theory was related to depression where people with no control over their unpleasant lives supposedly just learnt to be withdrawn and passive.

The concept is not particularly well validated, but even if it was and you were an interrogator, you’d want to avoid learned helplessness at all costs, because the detainee would see no point in co-operating. Furthermore, the acceptance of the theory is in direct contrast to the claims that the interrogations should not cause “severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” Learned helplessness is, by definition, the effect of chronic uncontrollable suffering.

What the interrogators want, and indeed, what the memos describe, is not learned helplessness, but where the detainees know and can demonstrate that co-operation is the only method that allows them control over their environment. This is more akin to sociologist Ervin Goffman’s concept of a total institution.

Clues and curiosities
One memo [pdf] mentions the concept of ‘resistance posture’, meaning the act of resisting the interrogators demands. The fact that this a specific term is used, and that it is additionally referred to as something that could be measured (‘This sequence “may continue for several more iterations as the interrogators continue to measure the [detainee’s] resistance posture”‘) suggests that this might be a specific psychological concept that is being empirically measured, perhaps through a combination of behavioural and physiological responses, presumably to help distinguish between resistance and genuinely not knowing the answer to a question.

It’s interesting that there is no reference to any neuroscience-based research or monitoring to justify conclusions, despite the widespread reports of the US secret services funding billions of pounds of research in this area. This may be because it’s too secret to release to the public, but it is just as likely that, as with other brain-based ‘prediction’ methods (neuromarketing, brain-scan ‘lie detection’) the data is less useful than more straightforward and better validated psychological and physiological methods.

As has been picked up by Wired the claims that 180 hours of sleep deprivation is not harmful in the long-term is based on a selective and limited reading of the scientific literature and is disputed by the people who carried out the research.

Link to PDFs of released memos.

The suicidal attraction of the Golden Gate Bridge

I’ve just found this morbidly fascinating article from a 2003 edition of The New Yorker that discusses the attraction of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to people who are suicidal.

It’s full of interesting snippets, like the fact that suicidal people tend to ignore the nearby and equally fatal Bay Bridge in favour of its more famous and more attractive cousin.

It also has quotes from some of the very few people who have ever jumped off the bridge and survived, and describes exactly what impact such a jump has on the body.

The article also touches on the debates over the erection of a suicide barrier on the landmark (it was finally decided in 2008 to put one in place) and the people-based suicide prevention methods.

It also has this lovely snippet about one of the police patrolmen, who has a wonderfully gentle way of talking to suicidal people:

Kevin Briggs, a friendly, sandy-haired motorcycle patrolman, has a knack for spotting jumpers and talking them back from the edge; he has coaxed in more than two hundred potential jumpers without losing one over the side. He won the Highway Patrol’s Marin County Uniformed Employee of the Year Award last year.

Briggs told me that he starts talking to a potential jumper by asking, “How are you feeling today?‚” Then, “What’s your plan for tomorrow?‚” If the person doesn’t have a plan, Briggs says, “Well, let’s make one. If it doesn’t work out, you can always come back here later.”

Apparently the article was the inspiration for the 2006 documentary film The Bridge which covered similar territory.

Link to New Yorker article ‘Jumpers’.

2009-04-24 Spike activity

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

The first Neuroanthropology Conference kicks off in October and looks awesome.

Twitter causes immorality nonsense deftly dispatched by bloggers. Most mainstream press lost the plot although Time did a good job and Wired Science were keeping it real.

The Guardian review neurophysiologist Kathleen Taylor’s new book on cruelty.

AI system examines mysterious and ancient symbols from the long-lost Indus Valley civilization and suggests that they may represent a spoken language, reports Wired.

The Financial Times has a look at the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition on ‘madness and modernity’.

The links between autism and genius are explored by The Economist.

Not Exactly Rocket Science has a brilliant article on how touch-related brain activity reduces after only a couple of weeks of having your hand in a cast.

There are a couple of wonderful girl-with-exposed-brain paintings here.

The New York Times reports on mental illness, the musical! (thanks Daniel!)

BBC Radio 4’s Health Check has a programme on meningitis and supernumeray phantom limbs.

Newsweek has an interesting Q&A on the psychology of memory.

An extended and interesting article on the psychology of how we related to the environment is published by The New York Times.

NeuroImage has an article arguing for community neuroimaging databases. Hallelujah and amen!

Is there a link between autistic traits and anorexia? asks New Scientist.

Frontal Cortex has an excellent piece on the commuters paradox – where we consistently underestimate the pain of a long commute.

Rapid emotional swings could predict violence in psychiatric patients suggests new research covered by Science News.

BBC News on the impressive ‘Blue Brain‘ project but who seem to like talking themselves up rather a lot. Apparently just a “matter of money” to simulate a whole brain (oh, and a good conceptual understanding of how the brain actually works beyond simplified models of the neocortical column).

18 ways attention goes wrong. PsyBlog continues riffing on attention by listing several related problems.

Psychiatric Times has an excellent article on the philosophy of psychiatry and how we define what counts as a mental illness. Bonus ‘internet addiction’ slapdown included.

Neuronarrative on a study suggesting that TV may be a surrogate for social interaction.

New ‘mind reading’ consumer EEG headsets about to hit the shelves with dull-looking games, according to New Scientist. They look fantastic, but don’t believe the hype – the fun will be in equipment hacks and data aggregation projects.

The Economist has a couple more good articles: one on the cognitive benefits of bilingual babies and the other on preconscious action selection and free will.

Makes of antidepressant Lexapro (escitalopram) may be gearing up for the latest in a long line a heavy weight US government fines for illegal promotion, reports Furious Seasons.