2009-09-04 Spike activity

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

<img align="left" src="http://mindhacks-legacy.s3.amazonaws.com/2005/01/spike.jpg&quot; width="102" height="120"

The New York Times has an article on ‘speed shrinking‘ – like speed dating but with psychologists. Doesn’t mention whether it includes any drunken snogging in the bar afterwards.

Drug company Pfizer busted with $2.3 billion fine for illegal promotion of psych drugs, kickbacks and the general shadyness that everyone knows is common practice throughout the industry. Furious Seasons is on the case and is also having a fundraiser.

New Scientist has an article on the project to create artificial limbs controlled by implanted brain chips.

Healthy people with an intense desire to have a limb amputated may have differences in the function of brain areas that represent the body, according to research covered by the BPS Research Digest.

The Washington Post has a first person account of someone who experienced transient global amnesia – a dense amnesia that appears suddenly and typically resolves within a few hours.

When it comes to encouraging people to work together for the greater good, carrots work better than sticks, according to a great write-up of new research from Not Exactly Rocket Science. I suspect it is because carrots are tastier.

The Independent reports on the growing problem of mental health problems in British troops returning from combat missions in Afghanistan. Psychiatric casualties have apparently tripled in the last three years.

Artificial intelligence researcher Noel ‘John Connor’ Sharkey says AI is a dangerous dream in an <a href="http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20327231.100-why-ai-is-a-dangerous-dream.html
“>interview for New Scientist.

Neuron Culture discusses two new military initiatives to counter PTSD in combat troops.

Wired covers a study finding that adolescent girls randomly assigned to three months of Tetris had thicker cortex in the frontal and temporal lobes. Full text of study here.

An elegant study that manipulated participants perception of free will is covered by the excellent Cognitive Daily.

neuro4kids has fan merchandise from the fantastic Neuroscience for Kids website

You are who you eat with. Time covers the social influences on obesity.

PsyBlog has an excellent article on ‘The Acceptance Prophecy: How You Control Who Likes You’. Sounds woolly, actually some fascinating social research.

We covered the news stories about rapper Roxanne Shant√© getting a PhD in psychology in 2007. Seems she’s been frontin’Slate investigates the smoke and mirrors.

The Today Programme, Radio 4’s flagship news show, has a good discussion on what recent research on brain differences in psychopaths really tell us.

Counter-intuitive research finding that teens with more mature brains are more likely to take <a href="http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1919663,00.html?xid=rss-topstories
“>risks is discussed by Time magazine.

Scapegoats cause disease

The New York Times has a fascinating piece on the historical tendency for societies to find scapegoats for outbreaks of disease.

The article gives examples from modern epidemics of how specific groups have been singled out as responsible for a disease as a simple explanation for complex situations.

One of the most interesting parts is where it tackles why certain groups may have been targeted.

In some cases, the author hypothesises that certain cultural practices may have meant some subcultures were less affected by outbreaks, making it easier for more affected population to point the finger of suspicion:

It is not uncommon for ethnic groups to have religious or cultural customs that protect against disease — but whether it was originally intended to do that or not is often lost in time.

Manchurian nomads, Dr. McNeill said, avoided plague because they believed marmots harbored the souls of their ancestors, so it was taboo to trap them, although shooting them was permitted. Butin the early 20th century, trapping by immigrants from China contributed to plague outbreaks.

And Tamils from India working as plantation laborers in Malaysia may have had less malaria and dengue than their Malay and Chinese co-workers did because they never stored water near their houses, leaving mosquitoes no place to breed.

The article reminded me of Jared Diamond’s influential book Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond argues that it is impossible to separate the history of human culture from the influence of disease because disease has been one of the most powerful, if not unintentional, influences in competition between social groups.

Link to NYT ‘Finding a Scapegoat When Epidemics Strike’.

Hallucinating sanity in the middle ages

I’m just reading a thought-provoking book called Hallucinations and Their Impact on Art. Unfortunately, it’s a little dry so isn’t the most gripping of reads but it has this fascinating bit about how hallucinations weren’t considered to be part of madness in the middle ages.

While it is widely accepted in modern times that you can ‘hear voices’ without being mentally ill, the experience of hallucinations is thought to be part and parcel of most forms of madness, whereas this was apparently not the case in medieval times:

From p7:

What is more curious to the contemporary man is that the medieval description of insanity does not include hallucinations; and the experience of possession (passivity phenomena) is not described as occurring concurrently with or as part of a visionary state.

In Western Europe from AD 500-1500, people who heard voices or saw visions considered themselves, and were considered buy their contemporaries, to have had an actual perceptual experience of either divine or satanic inspiration. They were not considered mad and were not treated as such. Hallucinations (fantasmata) were only considered mad when combined with trickery (prestigiae).

Unfortunately, the book is out of print but it contains many such gems among the rather dull academic prose.

Why you’ll never see hypnosis on TV, hopefully

A TV watchdog has ticked off Australian company Channel Nine for breaching the broadcasters code of conduct and showing a hypnosis session.

You may not be aware, but in many countries any broadcast of a hypnosis session is banned. Here is the relevant rule from the regulations [pdf] from the British TV watchdog Ofcom:

Rule 2.9 Hypnosis

Elements of the hypnotist’s routine may be broadcast to set the scene. However, it is important not to broadcast the routine in its entirety, nor to broadcast elements that may cause a member of the audience to believe they are being influenced in some way.

This is because it is perfectly possible to be hypnotised through the TV, or indeed through the radio.

There is no ‘magic’ to hypnosis, it just requires that someone relax, focus, listen to suggestions and engage with the process, and some research suggests that even the relaxing and focusing is optional.

The most important thing to know about hypnosis is that people vary in their hypnotisability and this is the single most important thing that determines whether suggestions will have an effect.

As long as they are spoken clearly, it doesn’t seem to matter how they’re presented.

In fact, one of the most widely used measures of hypnotisability in the scientific literature takes participants through a number of hypnotic suggestions to see which they can experience and is usually just run from a pre-recorded tape.

Link to ABC news ‘Nine attempted to ‘hypnotise viewers’ (thanks David!).

Profile of quiet revolutionary Aaron Beck

Aaron Beck is the creator of one of the world’s most widely used and influential psychological treatments, cognitive behavioural therapy, and he’s profiled in an excellent article for The American Scholar.

While Beck is most associated with CBT, the article really nails why he is important in the development of psychological treatment, and its not just for the therapy he invented: from the very beginning he scientifically tested the effectiveness and principles his treatment meaning it has constantly changed and developed according to a solid research base.

If this seems obvious to you, you need to understand a little about the history of psychotherapy before Beck applied systematic testing to his own invention.

Previously, changes in psychotherapy were largely driven by the persuasiveness and personalities of the leading lights rather than systematic evidence for effectiveness.

In many forms of therapy, especially Freudian-inspired schools, the therapist’s own personality was considered to be intimately tied up with their methods, theories and techniques, meaning that rubbishing someone’s approach also meant you were rubbishing their skill as a therapist and, often, them personally.

In the early days of psychoanalysis, a common put-down used by Freud and his disciples was that a theory they didn’t like was bad because it was tainted by the unresolved conflicts of the author. The problem, in other words, was not with the idea, but with the author.

Beck approached psychological treatment with scientific tools and immediately distanced the practice from the personal. Ideas could be put forward, tested and it was expected that many of them would fail in the face of the data.

As a result, critical reviews of the evidence are considered the life blood of the treatment.

This research-led approach has not arrived without ruffling a few feathers. Recently, as health services have decided only to fund evidence-based treatments, CBT has become the treatment of choice and other therapies have been pushed out as they’ve traditionally not been interested in doing systematic studies.

As a result, critics have argued that CBT has been moulded to fit health economics rather than human nature. The debate continues and is likely to continue for some time.

The American Scholar article is an engaging piece looking at Beck himself, a famously reserved character in the flamboyant world of therapy, and the development of his treatment.

Incidentally, it’s written by Daniel Smith who wrote the wonderful book on hearing voices called Muses, Madmen and Prophets that I highly recommend.

Link to American Scholar article ‘The Doctor Is In’.

A kick in the guts for Parkinson’s disease

Your gut has its own neural network. Called the enteric nervous system, it controls digestion and has as many neurons as the spinal cord.

Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder that has been long associated with stomach upsets. These were often explained away as due to poor diet or stress, but it seems increasingly likely that the disease may also be affecting the neurons in the digestive system.

It was originally thought just to destroy dopamine neurons in a deep brain structure called the nigrostriatal pathway, an effect which causes the distinctive movement problems, but it has become clear that the disorder causes damage throughout the nervous system via the formation of protein clumps called Lewy bodies.

A new article in European Journal of Neuroscience suggests that Parkinson disease affects the enteric nervous system, which might tie together some curious findings in the medical literature that have remained unexplained for many years.

Stomach upsets, swallowing and digestion problems have long been associated with Parkinson’s but it has never really been clear why.

While we commonly think of it purely in mechanical terms, digestion is remarkably complex process and the enteric nervous system is involved in the careful regulation of the muscle ripples of the gut, secretion of digestive fluids and blood flow to aid absorption.

Damage to this system would cause exactly the sorts of problems that have been reported in Parkinson’s disease patients and this fits with some previous findings that have been ignored for many years.

Until recently, only one study had investigated whether the enteric nervous system was damaged in Parkinson’s patients. It found that large numbers of the gut’s dopamine neurons seemed to be missing in patients with the disorder.

The next study appeared more than ten years later, this time looking for protein clumps in the gut of deceased patients, and found evidence that not only were these tell-tale signs present, but that the distribution suggested that neurons in the gut may be the first to be damaged.

The author of this study, neuroscientist Heiko Braak now proposes the radical idea that while we know part of the risk for Parkinson’s is genetic, maybe an environmental trigger – a virus – could get into the nervous system via the stomach, eventually triggering the brain changes that lead to the debilitating tremors and movement problems.

Link to Parkinson’s and gut nervous system article summary.

Seeing the results of surgery improves outcome

A newly published study has demonstrated the remarkable influence of beliefs on our experience of illness by showing that patients undergoing surgery to correct painful spinal tears report greater improvement if they’ve been shown the fragments of the removed disc.

The researchers, a surgical team from St George’s Hospital in London, were aware that anxiety and depression had a major influence on recovery after surgery for a type of spinal disc tear, commonly but inaccurately known as a ‘slipped disc’.

They decided to try a simple measure to help patients feel less anxious and bolster their belief that a good job had been done: the surgeons presented randomly selected patients with the removed fragments from their back.

This simple technique had a remarkable effect. Patients given a ‘souvenir’ of their operation reported greater improvement in sciatic nerve pain, lower back pain, less pins and needles sensations, less leg weakness and a reduced use of pain killers.

This study adds to the increasing evidence that beliefs have a marked impact on how the symptoms of an illness manifest themselves.

We know this is particularly the case for pain, and different beliefs about what is causing the pain and the effect it has, regardless of what the reality might be, can have a significant impact on the duration and the intensity of the pain itself.

Link to PubMed entry for surgery study (via @bengoldacre).

NeuroPod on updating ye olde brain map

The latest edition of Nature’s NeuroPod podcast has just hit the wires and has some great items on updating the Brodmann brain map, a challenge to the ‘use it or lose it’ theory of synapse formation, genetic copy and pasting in neurons and face perception in the monkey.

The first part is about a project to update the Brodmann areas, a map of the brain by different neuron structures that forms the basis of much modern neuroscience but is now 100 years old.

German neurologist Korbinian Brodmann started mapping the brain with his microscope and charting the different ways brain cells were organised and still today, if you read scientific papers on the brain, they often refer to places like Brodmann area 10 as a way of locating specific parts.

So you can see why the 100 year-old map needs an update.

Link to NeuroPod webpage.
mp3 of latest edition.

Drug smuggling innovations bulletin

I’ve just discovered the joys of the Microgram Bulletin, the newsletter of the US Drug Enforcement Administration that explains interesting new drug finds and novel methods for smuggling illicit substances.

It’s a curious mirror of the illicit drug trade and contains numerous mysterious finds, such as playground marbles systematically placed in cocaine bricks for an unknown purpose, or a find of cocaine smuggled as clear plastic-like coating for calendars, photos or magazines.

The bulletin also reports ‘mimic’ drugs, where manufacturers are passing off cheaper (and often nastier) substances as pill-based drugs such as ecstasy or amphetamine.

The publication has been going mostly monthly since 2003, and I recommend checking out some of the earlier editions as they contain some great essays and technical reports on the drug trade.

For example, there’s one edition with an analysis of cocaine trafficking derived from chemical analysis of seized drugs, and another on chemical dumps from illegal drug labs.

The picture on the left is from a report entitled “Cocaine concealed in religious plaques in Miami, Florida” from a report from May this year.

Link to DEA Microgram Bulletin online.