The Michigan Wildcat

The Providentia psychology blog has an excellent post about old-time champion boxer ‘The Michigan Wildcat’ Wolgast who fought on despite clear neurological damage and eventually suffered boxer’s dementia. He could apparently be found shadow boxing invisible opponents in the sanatorium.

Wolgast won the world lightweight title in 1912 but sustained continuous damage throughout his career and continued way past the point that would be permitted in modern times.

He progressed from minor neurological impairment to ‘dementia pugilistica‘ – a form of dementia caused by repetitive low level damage to the brain.

When his condition gradually deteriorated, Ad Wolgast was readmitted to hospital in 1927. While he remained there for the rest of his life, Ad continued to train in his room.; According to his obituary, that typically involved frequent shadowboxing, bobbing, and uppercuts against imaginary opponents. Ad Wolgast seemed largely unaware of his surroundings except on rare occasions when he would plaintively ask where he was and when he would be allowed to leave. His boxing career may have been long over but it still took two hospital attendants to restrain him whenever he was forced to do something he didn’t want to do. By all reports, his “tough guy” reputation and violent temper earned him numerous beatings in hospital but he always recovered quickly enough. He went blind in the final few years of his life.

Link to Providentia on ‘The Michigan Wildcat’.

Psychosurgery: new cutting edge or short sharp shock

The New York Times has an excellent article on how the development of new and more focused brain surgery techniques for the treatment of mental illness are leading to a tight-rope situation where doctors are trying to balance enthusiasm for a potential new treatment while avoiding its inappropriate use and bad publicity.

The use of neurosurgery for treatment of psychiatric disorders has a bad name. It is associated with the frontal lobotomy and leucotomy procedures which were carried out in large numbers in the 1940s, 50s and 60s on the basis on poor evidence and with very little oversight.

The dreadful excesses of this era have thankfully passed, and, with an increased understanding of brain circuity, it has been possible to trial the effect of very focused surgical interventions on certain neurological and psychiatric disorders.

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is the most popular procedure, which is partly because the implanted brain electrode can be very accurately targeted, and partly because, in principle, the effect is reversible as it relies on electrical current for its effect, although the dangers of brain surgery still remain.

Neurosurgical procedures are also being used to permanently alter the brain by making cuts or lesions to specific areas.

This has been used for many years in Parkinson’s disease to treat tremors (the distinctive ‘shaking’) because the circuits that control movement are quite well understand and easy to study because there are many objective and accurate ways of measuring movements.

Although the numbers are still tiny, the same strategy is being increasingly to treat severe mental illness. Searching PubMed for its common scientific name – ‘functional neurosurgery’ – brings up studies where it has been used on everything from addiction to chronic pain.

And this is where people get nervous, because the procedures are quite experimental still and the researchers are well aware of the dangers of being labelled as ‘modern day lobotomists’ if something goes wrong.

As the article nicely outlines, the challenge is not so much the control of symptoms, which is relatively easy, it’s doing this while avoiding of adverse effects, like cognitive impairments, brain damage or additional mental instability.

Link to NYT piece ‘Surgery for Mental Ills Offers Both Hope and Risk’.

Reflected glory

PsyBlog covers a study that explored the phenomenon of ‘reflected glory’ where sports fans will psychologically associate themselves with their team more closely if they are successful, but will distance themselves if the team loses.

The post discusses a classic 1976 study that looked at the ‘basking in reflected glory’ effect:

In the first of three experiments they compared what people wore when their college football team won with when they lost. On each occasion they went out and counted the number of students that wore shirts with their University’s name on it. Sure enough students were more likely to wear apparel emblazoned with their university’s name if their team had recently won a game.

In the second and third experiments the researchers found that people were much more likely to associate themselves with their team by using the pronoun ‘we’ if their team had won rather than lost. This effect was especially pronounced when people’s public image was threatened. In other words: if people currently feel they look bad to others, perhaps due to some failure, they are even more likely to try and reach for some success from elsewhere and hope that it rubs off on them.

Since then, there has been quite a sizeable literature on the effects on the psychological effects of being a sports fan – something known in the literature as ‘sport teams identification’.

One study found a clear link between team success and mood and a review even found a small effect on suicide attempts when you look at whole populations.

I don’t know a great deal about sports psychology, but there’s a small number of wonderful studies on how fans use pessimism to manage the psychology effects of wins and losses.

For example, one study found that dedicated fans of a team who’d just lost have an altered perception of how pessimistic they were before the game, perceiving their pre-match expectations to be much lower than they actually were.

Link to PsyBlog on the ‘reflected glory’ effect.

The art of CT

New Scientist has a gallery of wonderful images from radiologist Kai-hung Fung who makes awesomely beautiful pictures from CT scans.

The brain image (pictured) is particularly beautiful, it is labelled:

This image looks directly down through the top of the patient’s head.

The complex network of arteries and veins in the brain can be seen in shades of dark blue and the skull base is shown in green in the background.

Link to gallery of beautiful Kai-hung Fung images.

Encephalon 78 saunters in

The 78th edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has recently appeared on the Providentia blog with the latest in mind and brain writing from the blogosphere.

A couple of my favourites include a piece on The Mousetrap about the self in the eyes of the founding father of cognitive psychology – Ulrich Neisser, and a post that review robots controlled by brain simulations on Brain Stimulant.

There’s much more in the latest edition so do have a look.

Link to Encephalon 78.

2009-11-27 Spike activity

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

<img align="left" src="; width="102" height="120"

There’s an excellent analysis of the Blue Brain / IBM rumpus about ‘cat brain’ simulations and PR hype over at IEEE Spectrums.

Wired covers doubts about the ‘awake during 23 years in diagnosed coma’ case. NewSci has an subsequent interview with treating neurologist Steven Laureys, who adds little, but to be fair, he’s in a difficult position as he is bound by patient confidentiality.

There’s an obituary of influential anthropologist and linguist Dell Hymes in the Washington Post “who helped pioneer the study of how people use language in their everyday lives”.

Not Exactly Rocket Science covers an surprising study that finds that liberal American students tend to think that lighter photos of Barack Obama are more typical of him, while conservatives think he’s best represented by darker photos. Lighter skin judgements predicts voting in everyone.

NPR has an interesting piece on studies showing that the idea of ‘multi-tasking‘ is likely a myth – in fact, we’re probably just fast switching between tasks.

Mugged by a one eyed-man? BPS Research Digest covers research on how to make police line-ups fairer for suspects who have an unusual distinguishing feature.

All in the Mind has an interesting piece on piece on the psychology of engaging people with climate change.

Science writer David Dobbs discusses his recent piece on recasting risk genes as sensitivity genes on the Brain Lehrer Radio Show. You can hear the piece on Neuron Culture.

BBC News reports on a new study that has found a crucial gene involved in one of the deadliest forms of brain tumour.

There’s an excellent piece on ‘the mighty power of the nocebo effect‘ on Bad Science following recent goverment discussion on the evidence for homeopathy in the UK

Time magazine slightly misses the point by asking ‘Female Sexual Dysfunction: Myth or Malady?’. The key issue is not whether it’s a difficulty, but whether it’s a medical condition. The latter is being hyped now there’s a not very effective medication in the pipeline ready to be marketed.

On a similar note, there’s a good analysis of the new ‘female sex drive pill’ trial data that’s been released in summary form over at Neuroskeptic.

The Toronto Globe and Mail has an excellent piece about the growing evidence for bloodflow difficulties being involved in multiple sclerosis.

Neuronarrative collects a series of video lectures on the neuroscience of emotion.

Genetic differences in responsiveness to oxytocin are linked face reading ability and success in inferring emotions, according to research covered by The New York Times.

How our skin helps us to perceive speech. No really. Another good write-up from Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Science covers how fMRI evidence has recently been used in sentencing in a US murder case.

Science writer Jonah Lehrer reviews Stanislas Dehaene’s book on the neuroscience of reading over at Barnes and Nobel Review.

The Guardian covers a recent study that involving brain scanning actress Fiona Shaw to help understand how actors take on other characters.

A rather poorly controlled new study on brain structure differences related to ‘internet addiction’ is expertly covered by The Neurocritic.

Addiction Inbox cover the inconvenient truth from the latest survey that the Dutch smoke less cannabis than the majority of other European countries.

Can you be blamed for sleepwalking crimes? asks New Scientist.

Somatosphere has a motherlode of podcasts from a recent neuroethics conference.