A kava panorama

ABC Radio National’s Bush Telegraph has a special programme on a psychoactive plant called kava that has been used ceremonially by Pacific Islanders for generations and has recently been researched as a treatment for depression and anxiety.

The effects of kava are usually compared to alcohol as it has a sedating and relaxing effect, although it produces far less thinking impairment than booze so the drinker has much more mental clarity.

The programme explores the history and traditional preparation of this tranquillising plant as well as discussing recent scientific research on its use as a psychiatric treatment.

This is particularly in light of a recent study by psychiatrist Jerome Sarris and colleagues where it performed remarkably well as both an anti-anxiety and anxidepressant drug.

In the interview, Sarris describes how kava affects the brain as well as suggesting that its ban in many countries, based on concerns about liver damage, may be due to low quality preparations of the compound which aren’t found in traditional methods.

Link to Bush Telegraph on ‘Kava, bliss and angst’.

Countering the fixated threat

Photo by Flickr user ashley.adcox. Click for sourceI’ve just found this interesting 2007 article on the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre, a combined unit of the British Police and health service that attempts to divert disturbed and potentially dangerous stalkers to mental health services before they attempt violence.

[Psychiatrist] David James – whose research helped to found the centre, and who now co-directs it – outlines its mission: ‘We have discovered that letters written to prominent individuals can be a powerful tool in detecting people suffering from untreated psychotic illness,’ he says.

But FTAC isn’t just about preventing murders that haven’t yet occurred, and is much less about protecting the powerful by using psychiatrists’ powers to detain patients under the Mental Health Act. Its real innovation is to marry crime prevention with a new way of finding and helping those with therapeutic needs:

‘This is an area where the interests of security and public health overlap,’ James says. ‘We’re not just providing protection: we’re helping to find care and treatment for those whose lives are being destroyed by untreated mental illness.’ Some of the patients first identified by FTAC, James says, are now leading ‘functional and relatively normal’ lives.

We’ve featured research from the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre before on Mind Hacks, when we discussed a recent study on ‘a classification of royal stalkers’.

As the article notes, the centre seems to have caused some controversy when it opened with news reports concerned that it would some sort of shadowy persecutor of oddballs and the obsessed.

For reasons that don’t seem entirely clear, it’s recently been the focus of interest from two British members of parliament who asked various written questions about the centre. You can read their questions and the answers provided by the government online which are another useful source of information about the service.

Link to Observer article on the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre.

Ghost in the machine

Electronic brain implants are becoming increasingly common in both research and medicine but little attention has been paid to the digital security of these grey matter gateways. A new article in Neurosurgical Focus discusses their potential back doors and security weaknesses.

While there’s a small literature on hardware problems in implantable deep brain stimulators, little consideration has been give to data privacy, access control and crash protection for neural implants.

Many of these devices are designed to be surgically implanted and controlled, tuned or reprogrammed from outside the body by a wireless link but very few (if any) have an in-built authentication system that only allows access to people who are authorised to make the changes.

Currently, they work more like TV remote controls. Anyone with the correct remote control can change the settings on your TV, but it’s just assumed that no one except the owner would want to.

As these devices become more widespread, however, it leaves open the possibility that malicious attackers could alter the function of the brain by taking control of the device.

In fact the research group that wrote this article managed exactly this sort of remote pwnage on a commercial implantable heart defibrillator in 2003:

In our past research, we experimentally demonstrated that a hacker could wirelessly compromise the security and privacy of a representative implantable medical device: an implantable cardiac defibrillator introduced into the US market in 2003.

Specifically, our prior research [pdf] found that a third party, using his or her own homemade and low-cost equipment, could wirelessly change a patient’s therapies, disable therapies altogether, and induce ventricular fibrillation (a potentially fatal heart rhythm).

Although we only conducted our experiments using short-range, 10-cm wireless communications, and although we believe that the risk of an attack on a patient today is very low, the implications are clear: unless appropriate safeguards are in place, a hacker could compromise the security and privacy of a medical implant and cause serious physical harm to a patient.

We believe that some future hackers — if given the opportunity — will have no qualms in targeting neural devices.

It also seems that there is little concern for data privacy on these devices, so everything is broadcast ‘in the clear’. This means even if you didn’t own a legitimate controller, you could potentially intercept the data, learn its structure and create your own.

While information about an individual’s neural firing patterns are probably of little interest at the current time, we just don’t know enough about them to ‘reveal’ anything personal about the patient, their frequency and pattern could conceivably leave both the device and the patient open to side channel attacks – where the external behaviour of a system can give clues to its internal weaknesses.

For example, take a patient who has an implantable chip that detects when epileptic seizures are about to start and cools the disturbed part of the brain, a technology that is already in development.

It would be possible to know when the system kicks in by monitoring radio transmissions, giving the outside observer a reliable guide to what external conditions trigger seizures in the patient.

If transmitted, it might also be possible to read the exact frequency at which neural oscillations lead to seizures, giving clues as to how to trigger them with lights or sounds.

Another problem is the integrity of the devices. For example, the devices need to be resistant to interference from other radio signals, magnetic fields or even deliberate attempts to crash them.

This new article serves as both a warning and a plea to consider security when designing and deploying these increasingly common medical technologies.

By the way, the whole issue of Neurosurgical Focus is dedicated to brain-machine interfaces and is freely available online.

Link to ‘Neurosecurity: security and privacy for neural devices’.

Brutal untruths

Today’s Bad Science covers a particularly offensive bit of poor science reporting where preliminary results were misreported as suggesting that “women who drink alcohol, wear short skirts and are outgoing are more likely to be raped”.

The study has not yet been published and more worryingly showed none of the things claimed in the article published in The Telegraph, which raises the question of where such a disturbing spin came from.

The British Psychological Society put out a press release which mentioned none of the main claims of the newspaper article, but still seems a little unwise considering that the research was only in its early stages.

Link to Bad Science on ropey reporting of the study.

80% genetic, 20% polyester

Over the last couple of days, there’s been a great deal of coverage of three new studies on the genetics of schizophrenia. While the coverage has actually been pretty good, almost all the news stories make the same error when talking about the ‘genetic risk’ for the condition.

Twenty years ago, geneticists were searching for the ‘gene for schizophrenia’ until it became apparent that there was not going to be a single gene, or even a handful, found responsible for the mental illness.

It since became a mantra that the genetic risk for schizophrenia would be conferred by ‘many genes of small effect’. In other words, the cumulative effect of lots of genes that, on their own, would be quite benign.

Nature has just published three studies that use the only-recently-feasible technique of scanning the whole genome and has reported the first convincing positive evidence for the ‘many genes of small effect’ theory by finding that a whole bunch of genes, when considered together, account for about a third of the total difference in schizophrenia risk.

Interestingly, all three studies find that many of the genes lie in a <a href="region called the ‘major histocompatibility complex’ – a series of genes involved in the function of the immune system.

However, lots of the news reports, even from science publications give variations on the theme that ‘genetic factors account for 80 percent of the total risk of getting schizophrenia’.

This 80% figure (which can vary, some give 90%) is not an estimate of risk and shows a misunderstanding of estimated heritability taken from twin studies.

Luckily, I tackled exactly this issue in a column for July’s edition of The Psychologist:

Nature versus nurture is a lie. Music is not melody versus rhythm, wine is not grapes versus alcohol and we are not environment versus genes. We are their sum, their product and their expression. They dance together and we are their performance, but neither is an adversary. The art of understanding this elegant ballet is complex and arcane but you may never realise this from reading the quoted results of genetic studies, because the extent to which a trait is heritable, that is, accounted for by genetics, is usually expressed as a simple percentage.

If you search Google for the phrase “80 percent genetic”, you will discover hundreds of sources that claim that everything from schizophrenia, to height, to intelligence has been found to be four fifths ‘genetic’. Pick any other figure and you can find everyone from psychologists, to politicians, to journalists claiming that this or that is explained by genes to a given percentage. Geneticists know the subtly of this percentage and why these statements, usually lifted from the results of twin studies, are misleading, but clearly many others do not.

Imagine a mental illness is described as being 80% heritable. This is often taken to mean that four fifths of an individual’s risk is down to his or her genes, but this is not the case. What it means is that 80% of the variance in the measured illness was explained by genetic factors in the specific group that was studied. If this seems like a frivolous distinction, bear with me, because it is key in understanding heritability and it becomes crystal clear when tackled as an example.

Imagine that we could study a population where everybody lived in an identical environment. They did the same things everyday; they ate identical foods, had identical relationships and were stressed by identical events. Their lives were carbon copies of each other. A twin study would find that mental illness would be close to 100% heritable, because if the environment is fixed, any difference must be down to genetics. In fact, twin studies would find that everything is close to 100% heritable, for exactly the same reason. To flip our thought experiment on its head, if we only studied genetically identical clones, everything would be 0% heritable, because any difference must be down to the environment.

These figures do not necessarily tell us anything about the potential for a trait to be influenced by nature or nurture, because heritability is rarely an immutable and absolute fact about biology; it is an overall measure of how things are for that group, at that moment. In other words, the process of measuring the influence of genetics is, itself, subject to environmental factors. It captures the dance, not the dancers.

Thanks to Jon Sutton, editor of The Psychologist who has kindly agreed for me to publish my column on Mind Hacks as long as I include the following text:

The Psychologist is sent free to all members of the British Psychological Society (you can join here), or you can subscribe as a non-member by emailing sarsta[at]bps.org.uk”

Link one two three to Nature genetics of schizophrenia studies.
Link to good write up from Science News, despite 80% genetic risk slip-up.

2009-07-03 Spike activity

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

The ‘men agree on female attractiveness, women don’t on male attractiveness’ story has been a little exaggerated. There was consensus in both groups, just more in men than women.

The British Journal of Psychiatry has started putting fantastic art on its covers with a brief discussion of the piece. This month ‘Welcome to my <a href="Welcome to My Psychosis

A piece from BBC News on psychologists studying their own children to understand language development is clearly ripped off the New York Times, but it’s still very good.

The Economist reports on a study finding that depression is linked to how willing someone is to give up their goals.

Divorce rates are dropping. Is marriage being rehabilitated asks The New York Times. Jonah Lehrer also mans the marricades.

New Scientist discusses spite and theories on the function of social punishment.

Ten key studies that tell us about group behaviour are covered by PsyBlog.

Advances in the History of Psychology covers a US legal case that was a key moment in the history of eugenics for mental disability.

There’s an excellent neuroimaging study in PLoS One finding that brain areas linked to social cognition (described rather grandly as ’empathy’ areas) are activated more by sweat from anxiety than sweat from sport.

Big Picture magazine is an awesome resource for teachers that gives neuroscience activities and materials. Latest issue on ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’.

An anthropologist working for Intel discusses her work on ABC Radio National’s Future Tense.

In Our Time, the excellent BBC Radio 4 history of ideas programme has a discussion on <a href="Logical positivism
http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/iot/”>logical positivism.

Neurotech market analyst Zack Lynch gives an interview on emerging commercial neuroscience markets and participates in a discussion about cognitive enhancers on Canadian TV show The Agenda.

The Frontal Cortex finds an entertaining interview with Oliver Sacks on US comedy programme

A list of Top 10 psychology feeds on Twitter is on PsychCentral and there’s also a follow-up with a few more. Mostly therapist focussed but a good collection.

The Independent sends one of its reporters to try out a number of ‘legal highs‘. But I thought love was the drug?

There’s a tale of two suppressed studies at the Neuroskeptic.

Deric Bownds’ MindBlog has been excellent recently. Go check it out!

A ‘treat violence like a disease’ safer streets project is discussed by New Scientist.

Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica has started some surprisingly good psychiatry podcasts.

There’s a segment on brain cancer on ABC Radio National’s Health Report.

Danvers State Insane Asylum is a wonderful website on the history of this imposing gothic asylum built in 1878.

Two-year-olds possess grammatical insights according to a study covered by New Scientist.

Analysis from BBC Radio 4 has a good programme on experimental philosophy and morality. Grab the mp3 before it gets sucked into the black hole of their butchered archiveless website.

We have larger responses in brain areas linked to social cognition when seeing people of our own race in pain, according to a new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

Neuron Culture covers a fascinating study finding that the effect of Ritalin may partly be due to a placebo effect in the parents.

My mate Rich at PC Advisor riffs on the Troublemaker’s Fringe and the ‘Facebook causes cancer’ panic.

Dr Shock has an excellent post on placebo response in transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Picasso or Prosopometamorphopsia? asks a fantastic post on The Neurocritic on a neuropsychological disorder where faces seem distorted.

Eight way distortion

Photo by Flickr user LuluP. Click for sourcePetra’s written up her barnstorming talk she gave last night at the Troublemaker’s Fringe where she discussed ‘eight problems with science/health journalism and what we can do about it’ from her perspective as a social psychologist specialising in sex and relationships.

It’s a fantastic guide to how health stories get badly spun and why sexual health material is most likely to be misrepresented as it is considered ‘light’ and so not worthy of serious attention.

One of the main culprits seem to be the reliance on PR surveys which are intuitively easy to understand but are specifically designed to push a certain angle.

I was interested to hear that they are often designed not with journalists so much in mind, but the picture editor – see Clairol’s recent ‘survey’ finding that women are happiest at 28. Women like 28-year-old Jessica Alba and Gisele Bundchen by any chance? Bingo. Free celebrity tie-in reported as science in the national press.

Petra has plenty more media gems and it makes for a great insight into the thinking behind the sex and relationship stories that makes the media.

Link to Petra on science and health reporting.

A touch from a phantom third arm

A 64 year old woman developed a phantom third arm after a stroke, but unusually, the patient was able to see and feel the illusory limb. A study just published online in the journal Annals of Neurology used brain scans to examine the patient. They established that the phantom sensations were accompanied by similar sorts of brain activity as you’d get from a real arm.

Unlike a classic ‘phantom limb‘, where a patient feels sensations as if they’re coming from the previously amputated body part, a ‘supernumerary phantom limb’ is where a phantom seems to appear additional to the already existing arm or leg.

The condition is rare but has been reported before and is known as the ‘supernumerary phantom limb’ in the medical literature. As we discussed last year, it is usually associated with strokes that affect the subcortical areas of the brain.

One of the reasons this new case is so interesting is because not only could the patient feel their additional limb, but they claimed to be able to see it and feel touches from it as well.

Tactile sensations in the SPL [supernumerary phantom limb] happened when she clenched her hand (she could then feel her phantom palm with her phantom fingers) and when she ‘touched’ certain parts of her body (in which case, the sensation was felt both in the phantom and the touched body part).

She could touch parts of her head, as well as her right shoulder. She claimed to be able to use the SPL to scratch an itch on her head (with an actual sense of relief). Moreover, she reported that the phantom could not penetrate solid obstacles (see supplementary materials for more details).

While a handful of cases of ‘visible’ supernumerary phantom limbs have been reported, this combination of seeing and feeling the touch of one is unique.

Importantly, the patient was not delusional – they didn’t believe they had an extra limb – they knew the sensations were unrealistic, but the experience was still there.

The limb was also not permanently felt – the patient could trigger it at will – and it appeared “pale,” “milk-white,” and “transparent.”

The researchers were keen to see if these sensations were reflected in the activity of the brain by using fMRI scans.

They found that ‘moving’ the phantom limb in front of the line of sight caused increased activation in the visual cortex of the brain.

Most strikingly, they found that when asked to ‘touch’ her cheek with the illusory hand, activity in brain areas representing cheek sensation increased.

There is always the chance that someone with very bizarre symptoms could be lying, but it is also the case that brain disturbance can cause all sort of confusions and distortions – so in some cases a patient’s description of what’s happening may not always be a reliable guide to exactly what they’re experiencing.

In this case, the brain imaging suggests that the ‘supernumerary phantom limb’ was genuinely being perceived as a visible additional arm and that its ‘touches’ were being processed by the sensory system in a similar way to touches from existing limbs.

Because the condition is so rare, and so conceptually bizarre, there is no good explanation of why it occurs except that it may be linked to the disturbance of our already established body and action ‘maps’ in the brain.

Apparently, there is more information about the case in supplementary material which can be found ‘in the online version of this article’, but the additional information doesn’t seem to be online. Ironically, the study seems to have a phantom of its own.

Link to study.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Sign O’ The Neuro Times

The Neuro Times is a fantastic new blog about the history of neurology written by a historian with a passion for the development of brain science.

The author is Stephen T Casper, whose own work has focused on how the US-UK collaborations and rivalries during the 20th century shaped our understanding of the brain.

Although the blog has a similar 20th slant it also casts its net a little wider making it a wonderful historical resource.

It has book reviews, profiles of influential neuroscientists from times past, and discussions of key moments and debates.

Excellent stuff.

Link to The Neuro Times (via @mocost)

Fringe benefits

Photo by Flickr user man kissing bird. Click for sourceThanks to everyone who came along to the Troublemaker’s Fringe last night and I hope you all enjoyed the evening as much as I did.

The slides for my talk “Don’t touch that dial! Technology Scares and the Media” are online as a PowerPoint file and everything was captured as audio recordings so you should be able check out the evening’s events, including Ben and Petra’s excellent talks, as they appear online.

Apparently, they’ll be a discussion kicking off on badscience.net about some of the issues raised by the speakers, so I’ll keep you posted as the links appear.