Neural jewellery

Morphologica is a neuroscientist in the final stages of her PhD who also makes wonderful brain-inspired jewellery.

The piece in the picture is the lovely pyramidal neuron necklace, although there are also earrings and necklaces inspired by the double helix, the contours of the cortical surface and cell proliferation.

And if you’re a jewellery wearer (sadly, I can never find the shoes to match) you can pick up any of the pieces from Morphologica’s online store.

Link to Morphologica.

London walk / crossing the line

Photo by Flickr user raulsantosdelacamara. Click for sourceThis Saturday, I’m going to walk between the two poles of London’s psyche, the Maudsley Hospital and the Tavistock Clinic, whose rivalries have shaped our understanding of the mind in both the UK and around the world. If you’d like to join me, you’d be more than welcome.

Both were galvanised by the experience of the First World War where ‘war neuroses’ became a major source of casualties as the mechanised slaughter took a massive toll even on the survivors.

The South London Maudsley pioneered the scientific approach to psychiatry focusing on statistical empiricism and neuroscience while the North London Tavistock pioneered the clinical use of psychotherapy developing group treatments and youth work.

The competition between the two institutions swayed between healthy rivarly to outright distrust and as a result both have developed as contrasting sides to the city’s psyche each conveniently separated by the Thames.

The dark clouds of the Second World War brought an influx of European Jewish émigrés into London, including Sigmund and Anna Freud into the psychoanalytic community orbiting around the Tavistock; while the Maudsley benefited from the arrival of psychopathologists such as Alfred Meyer and William Mayer-Gross.

This cemented their reputation and their outlook and both remain centres of excellence nationally and internationally.

The walk is about 8 miles but I’m planning for a few minor detours for interesting sites (grounds of the old Bedlam Hospital, now the Imperial War Museum, St Thomas’ Hospital and the like) and with stops for lunch and maybe the occasional pint, I reckon leaving the Maudsley at 11am, arriving at the Tavistock will be between about 4-5pm.

I’ve no idea if anyone else wants to walk across London, guided by psychiatric hospitals, but if you do drop me a line, and I’ll email you the exact details nearer the time. I shall be going rain or shine so no need to commit. It’s just so I don’t have to think so bloody far ahead.

I’ll post some details on the day via the Twitter (@vaughanbell) so you can always catch up at any point.

In summary, 11am, near the Maudsley Hospital in Denmark Hill, Saturday 19th September, to walk to the Tavistock Clinic in the leafy suburb of Belsize Park for about 4-5ish.

The fake pharmacopeia

Psychiatric drugs are an essential tool in the treatment of mental illness but the pharmaceutical industry is still one of the most ethically dubious enterprises on the planet. That’s why I use spoof drug ads, because sometimes only the best will do.

If you want to be part of the health care revolution, here’s a selection of some of the finest drugs that money can’t buy:

The Onion News Network reports on Despondex, the first depressant drug for persistent perkiness.

Havidol is the first and only treatment for Dysphoric Social Attention Consumption Deficit Anxiety Disorder. When more is not enough.

The happiest drug on the planet is clearly Progenivoritox, just be careful about those side-effects.

Panexa is a prescription drug that should only be taken by patients experiencing one of the following disorders: metabolism, binocular vision, digestion (solid and liquid), circulation, menstruation, cognition, osculation, extremes of emotion.

Depressed? Over worked? Job suck? Unappreciated? Family problems? Money worries? Well here’s a pill for you! Fukitol.

So next time you’re affected by drug companies hiding unfavourable results, burying data about side effects, illegally promoting pills for unlicensed conditions, stuffing doctors’ pockets with cash and gifts, promoting scientifically unfeasible theories and pushing astroturfed health campaigns, ask the drug industry to continue their essential work without being so unnecessarily dodgy.

Warning: side effects may vary.

Splintered sexuality as a window on the brain

Photo by Flickr user lorzzzzzzz. Click for sourceCarl Zimmer has an interesting article in Discover Magazine on brain function and sex, one of the most neglected areas in contemporary neuroscience.

We know scandalously little about the neuroscience of sex. For example, we know more about the what the brain does during hiccups than during orgasm and yet very little sex research is completed in comparison to studies on other areas of human life.

Zimmer focuses on several recent neuroimaging studies on sexual desire and contrasts it with some case studies of altered sexuality after brain damage, particularly one of the first from 1945 – a patient named CW who showed a sharp increase in sexual desire associated with epileptic seizures.

Curiously though, the article implies that, in sex research, brain imaging is the way forward while case studies of brain damaged patients are a thing of the past, when this couldn’t be further from the truth.

We have learnt far more about the link between brain circuits and human behaviour through studying patterns in what people can and cannot do after brain injury than we ever have through brain scans.

This is because scans can only tell us that activity is associated with a behaviour whereas studies of brain injury tell us whether the affected part of the brain is necessary for the function we’re studying.

Think of it like this: if you didn’t know how a car worked and wanted to work it out from scanning from the outside, seeing what parts were active when it moved would likely also identify the radio along with the engine.

But if we looked at a bunch of differently damaged cars we would be able to quickly work out that the radio was non-essential for driving because when it was damaged, the car could still move, whereas damage to the engine stopped it dead.

The same goes for sex research and as described in a recent scientific article on what altered sexual function after brain damage tells us about sexuality, ‘lesion studies’ have taught us a great deal, whereas the relatively few brain scanning studies are still just scratching the surface.

Both are important, of course, and there are advantages to each. Zimmer gives the example of an EEG study showing the progression of activity through the brain during sexual desire, something not possible just from studies of damage.

Nevertheless, researching brain dysfunction is still our most useful tool and one that has taught us the most about the neuroscience of human sexuality.

Link to Discover article ‘Where Does Sex Live in the Brain?’
Link to article on what brain damage tell us about sex.

2009-09-11 Spike activity

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

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Neuroanthropology has some great coverage of a well deserved fail on some dismal attempts to research the slash fiction community. The best bit – the two neuroscientists are written into a erotic slash story as poetic justice.

There’s an overly wordy piece on hypochondria, high culture creativity and the imagination in The Guardian.

BBC News has an audio slideshow from the Cambridge University archaeology and anthropology department on the changing concept of the body taken from a new exhibition.

There’s now a regular <a href="
“>round up of psychology and neuroscience posts from compiled by Cognitive Daily and they’re great.

Psychiatric Times has a review of a new book called ‘Poets on Prozac’.

A study that claims to predict antidepressant response from EEG readings relies on secret unreleased constants in the formulae. Antiscience with your commerce? Neuroskeptic one of the few places to pick up on this.

Time has a piece on a brain damaged patient who seems to have lost her sense of personal space.

Why do women have sex? asks Dr Petra.

Science News covers the new genome wide association studies that have identified two new risk genes for Alzheimer’s disease.

The tracking of mobile phones can lead to insights into our social networks that are equally fascinating and alarming. A new study covered by the excellent BPS Research Digest.

Science News reports on a randomised controlled trial of the effects of playing the computer game Tetris on the brains of adolescent girls shows it leads to grey matter and efficiency increases.

Newsweek has an article on how babies can make judgements based on <a href="See Baby Discriminate″>skin color.

The interaction between individualism and mental distress are discussed by Frontier Psychiatrist.

Spiegel gets behind the brain-computer interface hype and finds the tech isn’t actually very useful yet. “My original plan was to write this article with nothing but the power of thought” – how cute – “but…” you can guess the rest.

Psychiatry is broken says psychologist Richard Bentall; it’s just a bit rough around the edges says psychiatrist Tom Burns, both in The Guardian.

BBC News reports on a new study by director of National Institute on Drug Abuse’s research group, this time on kids with ADHD, finding (can you guess?) differences in dopamine function in the ‘reward system’.

Artificial intelligence won’t be intelligent if we don’t include motivation according to an opinion piece on Technology Review.

Neuroethics at the Core is an excellent blog with a recent article on the use of TMS to achieve cognitive enhancement.

The director of the Kinsey Institute is called Dr Heiman. That is all.

The Independent has an obituary for family therapy pioneer David Campbell.

A lovely study on the effect of hunger on food liking is covered by Neurotopia.

New Scientist has an opinion piece arguing we should legalise illicit drugs by someone called Clare who doesn’t sound much like a terrorist but you can’t be too sure these days.

A fascinating piece of research on how different types of camera angle alter the believability of children’s testimony is covered by Neuronarrative.

Furious Seasons has a great comedy snippet from the Tonight Show taking the piss out of Pfizer for their $2.3 bazillion fine for being shady / endangering the lives of patients through illegal marketing practices.

Not your first choice of painkiller

I’ve just found this alarming case study [pdf] from the Singapore Medical Journal about a patient who had a nail banged into their head by a local healer in an attempt to treat persistent headaches.

Craniocerebral penetrating wounds caused by nails are rare and reported as curious experiences. A 45-year-old female patient presented with a metal nail in situ in the middle of her head, very close to the right side of the midline. The patient had been unconscious since the time of injury. There was no history of vomiting or seizures. Neurologically, the eye opening and verbal response were nil, but she was localised to the pain and moved all four limbs equally. The pupils were bilaterally symmetrical and reactive to light. General and systemic examinations were unremarkable.

The relatives revealed that she had been suffering from a headache (more on the right side) for the last ten years, with off and on exacerbation. They took the patient to a Tantrik, who hammered the nail into her head to get rid of the bad omen. Anteroposterior and lateral radiographs of the skull showed a foreign object inside the skull, very near to the midline. As there were no facilities to perform computed tomography (CT) in the peripheral hospital, the nail was removed under local anaesthesia, based on the radiographical findings. After the removal of the nail, she was managed conservatively and made a gradual recovery in her sensorium. The patient was doing well at follow-up.

As medical historian Owsei Temkin discussed in his definitive book on the history of epilepsy The Falling Sickness (ISBN 0801848490) banging nails into the head was also a Roman ‘treatment’ for seizures.

Link to PubMed entry for case study.
pdf of full text of case study.

First among equals in the mind of a child

Photo by Flickr user (stephan). Click for sourceScience News has a fascinating article on research suggesting that the desire for autonomy is a universal feature of human psychology that can be seen in children around the world and is not something solely prominent in Western children.

The stereotype is that Western society is individualistic and Eastern is collectivist, but as we’ve discussed before, this broad stereotype often doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Not without some scepticism, this new research suggests that children begin to develop concepts of autonomy from about the age of 10, regardless of which culture they grow up in.

[Psychologist Charles Helwig of the University of Toronto says] his new findings support the idea that universal concerns among children — such as a need to feel in control of one’s behavior and disapproval of harming others — shape moral development far more than cultural values do.

“It’s remarkable how little cultural variation we have found in developmental patterns of moral reasoning,” says Helwig, who presented his results in Park City, Utah, at the recent annual meeting of the Jean Piaget Society.

Helwig and like-minded researchers don’t assume that kids’ universal responses spring from a biologically innate moral-reasoning capacity. Instead, they say, children gradually devise ways of evaluating core family relationships in different situations. Kids judge the fairness and effectiveness of their parents’ approaches to punishing misbehavior, for example. These kinds of relationship issues are much the same across all cultures, from Helwig’s perspective.

Link to Science News article ‘Morality Play’.

Been there, done that, gone back in time, got the tshirt

Last Exit to Nowhere are an online retailer who do fantastic tshirts of logos from fictional companies. This t-shirt is for Skynet, the corporation from the Terminator movies who create the artificially intelligent military network that becomes sentient and starts a war on humans.

In fact, there’s loads of cognitive science themed t-shirts, including companies from Bladerunner, Total Recall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Robocop, 2001 and so on.

The Skynet t-shirt is my favourite although you should clearly deactivate any cognitive scientist wearing it without a trace of irony.

By the way, the UK military communications network is called Skynet. Only funny if you don’t think about it too hard.

Link to Last Exit to Nowhere.
Link to Skynet t-shirt.

Laughing into unconsciousness

I just found a curious article from the Journal of the American Medical Association about a case of ‘laugh syncope’ – a condition where the patient passes out when they crack up with laughter.

Syncope is the medical term for when someone feints and it is caused by a reduction of oxygen to the brain.

At 4 PM on a March day, a 32-year-old, previously healthy barber was standing and cutting a client‚Äôs hair. The client related a funny story, upon which the barber broke out into a very strong, sustained, loud, and unrestrained laughing fit during which, according to observers, he “blacked out” and fell to the floor. Although he sustained interscapular bruising and minor trauma to the right shoulder, he exhibited no seizure activity and no bladder or bowel incontinence.

He regained consciousness within a few seconds, was completely oriented, had no apparent neurological deficit, and immediately resumed his work. He had been working on his feet throughout the day, but this was customary for him and he had never had a syncopal or near-syncopal episode before. The temperature at the time had been mild. The timing of his most recent meal was not recorded. The patient did not reveal the content of the story.

I love that last sentence. It reminds me of an earlier medical warning about the dangers of powerful jokes.

I note there’s another case of ‘laugh syncope’ that was published last year.

Apparently these cases can be caused simply by problems with getting the blood to the brain (such as heart difficulties), problems with the brain itself (for example, difficulties with its own blood supply network or the occurrence of a seizure) or due to what is known as a vasovagal episode that can be due to psychological triggers or vagus nerve dysfunction.

Link to ‘Shear hilarity leading to laugh syncope in a healthy man’.

Fragging rights

The Economist covers an interesting twist on the Turing test for artificial intelligence. Instead of software attempting to fool human judges into thinking they’re chatting to another person, it needs to fool gamers into thinking their playing against a human opponent.

In Turing’s original proposal, human judges would have a text-based conversation with a human and a machine, and the machine would be judged to be artificially intelligent if the judges couldn’t reliably determine who was human.

This is the same principal applied to first person shooter games like Doom, Quake and Call of Duty, where human players need to judge whether their opposite number is a fellow human or just a collection of cold hard data:

Computers can, of course, be programmed to shoot as quickly and accurately as you like. To err, however, is human, so too much accuracy does tend to give the game away. According to Chris Pelling, a student at the Australian National University in Canberra who was one of last year’s finalists and will compete again this year, a successeful bot must be smart enough to navigate the three-dimensional environment of the game, avoid obstacles, recognise the enemy, choose appropriate weapons and engage its quarry. But it must also have enough flaws to make it appear human. As Jeremy Cothran, a software developer from Columbia, South Carolina, who is another veteran of last year’s competition, puts it, “it is kind of like artificial stupidity”.

The competition is called the 2K BotPrize and is currently being held in Milan, Italy.

Link to The Economist on ‘Fighting it out’.
Link to 2K BotPrize website.

Just my librium and me

I’ve just discovered that David Bowie’s song All the Madmen is about his half brother and his time as a patient at the recently closed Cane Hill psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of South London.

In fact, the hospital is pictured on one of the original versions of the cover to his classic album The Man Who Sold the World, as you can see from the image on the left.

The main part of Cane Hill hospital has been closed since the early 90s and was largely dilapidated, but one unit was still in operation until it finally closed last year.

Being one of the few remaining vacant Victorian asylums, it was regularly visited by bored youths and curious urban explorers and there are hundreds of videos of the abandoned hospital buildings on YouTube.

As is the fate of all old asylums in the UK, it is in the process of being turned into luxury flats.

However, I suspect it’s also the setting for the recent video ‘Take Me to the Hospital’ from purveyors of rave The Prodigy, but I can’t find anything which confirms which old hospital they filmed in, so it will have to remain speculation.

Link to Wikipedia on All the Madmen.
Link to audio of track on YouTube.
Link to Wikipedia on Cane Hill Hospital.

Brain scanning unborn babies

I’ve just had pick my jaw up from the floor after reading an article on the brain scanning of unborn babies. I was idly wondering whether anyone had attempted to do an MRI scan of the fetal brain only to find that researchers are so advanced that they can do almost any sort of adult neuroimaging on the fetus – including psychological studies of brain activation.

One of the main difficulties with brain scanning unborn babies is that they move about a lot. You can asks adults and children to stay still, but fetuses are a little bit harder. One of the major advances in the field has been the development of algorithms to reconstruct high definition scans from blurred images.

Researchers have also completed diffusion scans that can create 3D maps of the white matter ‘cabling’ of the brain in the unborn baby, as with a recent study [pdf] on how brain connections develop during gestation. Recent studies have similarly been able to measure developing brain metabolism and examine how the size and shape of specific areas change during pregnancy.

But most amazingly, several studies have conducted functional MRI experiments on fetuses. In other words, they measured neural activity in specific brain areas in response to specific experiences.

The two scans on the right are from a 2008 study that looked at whether unborn babies at the 33rd week of development would show brain responses to sound in their auditory cortex, part of the temporal lobes. The researchers simply put headphones on the belly of the pregnant women and scanned while they played tones.

The top scan is from an adult, while the one from the bottom is from one of the fetuses, showing clear and selective activity the auditory cortex nearest the sound source.

I was completely blown away by that, and researchers are continuing to develop new and intriguing ways of presenting experiences to the fetus (such as shining lights through the belly to look for visual brain responses!).

Link to PubMed entry for paper on brain scanning fetuses.

Stunning brain scans of 500-year-old mummies

The Llullaillaco mummies are the spectacularly preserved bodies of three sacrificial children from a 500-year-old Inca civilisation found at more than 6,500m above sea level in the Peruvian Andes. I’ve just found a study that brain scanned the mummies and the results are nothing short of stunning.

I’ve tried to link each scan to the picture of the relevant mummy (although I have to say, the online photos of the mummies are a bit inconsistently labelled so I apologise for any mismatching) and you can see how remarkably well-preserved they are both inside and out.

The mummies are of a 15-year-old girl, a 7-year-old boy and a 6 year-old girl that are thought to have been left as part of a ritual Inca sacrifice. From the article:

The scientific excavation was carried out at an altitude of 6,739 m above sea level on the summit of Mount Llullaillaco in the northwestern Argentinean Andes at an average temperature of ‚Äì15¬∞C. These children had been sacrificed 500 years ago in times of the Inca Empire to appease the mountain deities and to ensure the emperor’s well-being. In addition, the mummies were buried with more than 100 objects, including textiles, gold and silver statues, pottery, and feathered headdresses.

The children had been buried in three pit tombs built by the Incas by enlarging natural niches in the bedrock at the summit shrine of Mount Llullaillaco, which is considered to be the highest archaeological site in the world. The mummies were individually buried 1.7 m deep with their associated offerings. The funerary sites were covered with a mixture of soil and stones, which was also used to fill in the platform that was later built to cover the burials.

According to a National Geographic news story, the older girl was found to have chewed coca leaves and drunk corn liquor, the latter possibly to put her asleep.

Link to study on brain scans of Llullaillaco mummies.
Link to NatGeo story on the mummy of the older girl.

Latah and the rules of rule breaking

Latah is a curious mental state seemingly localised to Malaysia and Indonesia where a person gets wound-up to such a degree that they show an exaggerated startle response, are highly suggestible, and may produce unintentional tic-like behaviour sequences when prompted by others.

It has been discussed as rare exotica in the medical literature but owing to the wonders of the internet, there are now many videos of it on YouTube (welcome to the age of armchair anthropology).

The name is also used to refer to people who have a tendency to get into latah states, and other people may deliberately trigger latah behaviours in the person as a sort of usually good natured social teasing.

For example, this video has some friends indulging in some good natured joshing by getting one of their latah companions to do a whole range of daft actions through demonstration or suggestion. The latah seems compelled to comply, occasionally snapping out of it to implore them to ‘stop it!’.

There are many other examples online. Although the specific triggered behaviours vary, almost all have the element of good-natured group teasing.

The condition is described by Western psychiatry as a culture-bound syndrome as it is typically thought only to occur in Malaysian and Indonesian people although the medical literature has had an ongoing debate about whether other cultures have the same phenomenon under a different name.

This is from an article on culture bound syndromes from The Psychiatric Times:

This same physiology has been elaborated in a variety of societies that are unrelated either historically or culturally. Among the Ainu in Japan, the syndrome is called imu, and in a French-Canadian population in Maine it is called jumping. Thus, these syndromes are similar, but not identical, from society to society. This, of course, is true of the diagnostic entities described in DSM-IV as well. Like hyperstartling, sleep paralysis (a feeling of paralysis when either just falling asleep or waking up, sometimes accompanied by visual or audio hallucinations) has been elaborated into a culture-bound syndrome in a number of unrelated geographic locations. It is known as uqamairineq among the Yupik Eskimos and as old hag in parts of Newfoundland, Canada.

Anthropologists, who are much better at dealing with cultural variation without trying to shoehorn it into their familiar categories, have often loudly scoffed at the psychiatric definition of latah as a syndrome, suggesting it is just a defined social role of the local culture that has its own limits and and ‘rules’.

The latah can break social convention by swearing or acting the fool, but violence or sexual indecency rarely occur and would be frowned upon.

In other words, it allows for socially sanctioned rule breaking while giving the person the justification of not being in control of their behaviour.

This is a common theme in society. Think about our ideas of a ‘wild night out’. Someone gets really drunk and flashes their arse at a passing bus – craaazy! Someone gets really drunk and flashes their cock at a bus – sex offender.

The ‘drunk’ reason doesn’t seem to excuse the latter quite so well, showing that there are limits to being ‘out of control’.

This doesn’t mean that we are fully in control either, it just means that all societies have established ways of allowing us to live on the boundaries (the liminal if you want the jargon).

From this perspective, Latah is a local example of a common human tendency.

Link to video of a latah (more here – thanks Ivan!)
Link to Psychiatric Times on culture-bound syndromes.

A flight simulator for brain surgery

Gizmodo has picked up on an interesting new neurosurgery simulator that not only provides virtual reality skills training but also allows doctors to use data from MRI scans to practice on the brain of a specific patient.

The system also gives tactile feedback through the instruments, so you can feel the resistance in the brain tissue as you ‘cut’ through it.

According to a piece in TechReview, it’s the result of an ongoing project to create a neurosurgery simulator that started last year in Canada.

Check the Gizmodo page for a news clip where you can see the simulator in action.

Link to Gizmodo with video of NeuroTouch.
Link to TechReview write-up.

Instant reflex may reveal brain injury after knock out

I’ve just found a fascinating video clip reporting on newly discovered reflex action that occurs after a knockout blow. The researchers scoured YouTube for videos of nasty bangs the head and found many examples of the reflex appearing in people as they hit the deck.

The news clip is a a bit American (Americans, if you’re not sure what this means, to us, all your news seems like this) but includes some video clips which illustrate the response in sportsmen who have been knocked out.

The researchers who have discovered the response have named it the ‘fencing response’ apparently because it looks like the en gard position in fencing – presumably though, only if you’ve never actually seen any fencing.

It actually looks more like the boxing stance with both hands out in front with elbows bent.

They suggest in their study that the response is a visible marker of moderate brain injury.

Link to news clip on the ‘fencing response’.
Link to abstract of study.