Autism, desperation and untested treatments

The Chicago Tribune has just published two important articles on how untested and potentially dangerous medical treatments are being used on autistic children by US parents desperate for a cure.

Many of these treatments are based on flimsy or non-existent evidence and they are being promoted by a subculture of parents of autistic children, who seem to overlap significantly with the anti-vaccination movement.

Dr. Carlos Pardo was trying to head off trouble.

The Johns Hopkins neurologist and his colleagues had autopsied the brains of people with autism who died in accidents and found evidence of neuroinflammation. This rare look inside the autistic brain had the potential to increase understanding of the mysterious disorder.

It also, he knew, could inspire doctors aiming to help children recover from autism to develop new experimental treatments — even though the research was so preliminary the scientists did not know whether the inflammation was good or bad, or even how it might relate to autism.

So when Pardo and his colleagues published their paper in the Annals of Neurology in 2005, they added an online primer that clearly explained their findings in layman’s terms and sternly warned doctors not to use them to develop treatments…

Citing Pardo’s research, doctors have treated children with a blood product typically reserved for people with severe immune system disorders like the one known as “bubble boy” disease. They have used it to justify sealing children with autism in pressurized bags and submarine-like metal chambers. Other children have been given a drug used to treat extremely rare genetic disorders.

The articles have several more examples of how scientific findings have been distorted or misinterpreted to justify dubious treatments (like chelation therapy, hormone suppressors and hyperbaric chambers) without any clear evidence for their benefit.

They’re both in-depth articles but are well worth your time as, along with Wired’s recent article on autism and antivaxxers, they are some of the best mainstream articles to track the growing trend for pseudo-medical autism treatments in recent times.

Link to ‘Risky alternative therapies have little basis in science’.
Link to ‘Science hijacked to support alternative therapies’ (both via MeFi)

British ‘brain washing’ during WWII interrogations

BBC Radio 4 has an excellent documentary on how ‘brain washing’ techniques and psychological coercion were used by the British military for interrogations during the Second World War.

Newly uncovered documents implicate psychiatrist Alexander Kennedy in the use of sensory deprivation, disorientation and mind-altering drugs on prisoners during secret service interrogations on foreign soil.

The piece has uncanny echoes of the recent debate about Guantanamo Bay and ‘war on terror’ interrogations with the extensive use of contractors and the leader of the government, Harold Wilson Macmillan, falsely denying that anything abusive took place.

The techniques are surprisingly similar to those later researched by the CIA MKULTRA programme and many of the sensory deprivation and disorientation techniques clearly survived until the ‘war on terror’.

It’s an interesting complement to the recent BBC documentary (‘Revealing the Mind Bender General’) we discussed previously about the role of British psychiatrist William Sargant in what seems like a continuation of this research in post-war London.

BBC News has a brief summary of the programme if you don’t catch it in the next few weeks as it is likely to disappear from the now crippled BBC archive in the near future.

Link to BBC Radio 4 edition of Document on WWII ‘brain washing’.
Link to BBC News piece ‘Britain’s WWII brainwashing’.

Media cat and mouse game with brain simulations

Henry Markram, leader of the Blue Brain neural tissue simulation project, has sent an angry email to IBM following their widely-reported but misleading announcement that they’d created a simulation as complex as a cat brain.

This has come some months after similar headlines declared that an equivalent of a ‘mouse brain’ had been simulated by the IBM-affiliated Blue Brain project.

The initial claims were clearly false, as the project only aims to simulate cortical columns, a type of highly organised brain tissue that is common in the cortex, and the most recent simulation to make the headlines is even more simple.

Even the Blue Brain project, which is attempting realistic biological simulations, is not aiming to simulate the complexity or the function of a whole brain, in the same way that a simulation of muscle tissue, no matter how accurate, is clearly not going to produce an artificial human.

In an email which was copied to several leading science publications, project leader Henry Markram takes IBM’s PR department and one of their cognitive computing researchers to task for ‘stupid statements’ and ‘mass deception of the public’ – and those statements are some of the tamer ones. Here are points 1-3:

1. These are point neurons (missing 99.999% of the brain; no branches; no detailed ion channels; the simplest possible equation you can imagine to simulate a neuron, totally trivial synapses; and using the STDP learning rule I discovered in this way is also is a joke).

2. All these kinds of simulations are trivial and have been around for decades – simply called artificial neural network (ANN) simulations. We even stooped to doing these kinds of simulations as bench mark tests 4 years ago with 10’s of millions of such points before we bought the Blue Gene/L. If we (or anyone else) wanted to we could easily do this for a billion “points”, but we would certainly not call it a cat-scale simulation. It is really no big deal to simulate a billion points interacting if you have a big enough computer. The only step here is that they have at their disposal a big computer. For a grown up “researcher” to get excited because one can simulate billions of points interacting is ludicrous.

3. It is not even an innovation in simulation technology. You don’t need any special “C2 simulator”, this is just a hoax and a PR stunt. Most neural network simulators for parallel machines can can do this today. Nest, pNeuron, SPIKE, CSIM, etc, etc. all of them can do this! We could do the same simulation immediately, this very second by just loading up some network of points on such a machine, but it would just be a complete waste of time – and again, I would consider it shameful and unethical to call it a cat simulation.

It’s a stinging response from someone clearly annoyed at the misrepresentation of this sort of biological simulation work.

If you want to get a good handle on the aims of the Blue Brain project at least, Jonah Lehrer’s piece for Seed is the best you’re likely to read for a while.

Link to Markram’s email in IEEE Spectrum (via @Neurotechnology)

Spinning yarns

Originally published earlier this year in Prospect magazine, Tom has put a copy of his fantastic article online where he discusses our capacity for improvisation and how it links with a post-brain damage condition call confabulation where patients seem unable to stop themselves inventing unlikely stories.

Confabulation occurs most typically after frontal lobe damage and causes patients to give clearly false information either spontaneously or when they’re asked a question without any obvious intention to deceive the questioner.

It’s generally thought to be a problem with retrieving memories. The idea is that, initially, remembering activates a whole load of loosely associated information and then a filtering processes narrows it down to only the most relevant and likely memories.

Confabulation is thought to occur when brain damage impairs this filtering process so patients will recount incoherent information because they can’t easily distinguish between likely memories and other the contents of their mind.

Tom discusses how, in healthy people, the strength of this filtering process could be ‘turned down’ to allow theatrical improvisation and instant creativity.

In those patients with frontal damage who do confabulate, however, the brain injury makes them rely on their internal memories—their thoughts and wishes—rather than true memories. This is of course dysfunctional, but it is also creative in some of the ways that make improvisation so funny: producing an odd mix of the mundane and impossible. When a patient who claims to be 20 years old is asked why she looks about 50, she replies that she was pushed into a ditch by her brothers and landed on her face. Asked about his good mood, another patient called Harry explains that the president visited him at his office yesterday. The president wanted to talk politics, but Harry preferred to talk golf. They had a good chat.

Improvisers tap into these same creative powers, but in a controlled way. They learn to cultivate a “dual mind,” part of which doesn’t plan or discriminate and thus unleashes its inventive powers, while the other part maintains a higher level monitoring of the situation, looking out for opportunities to develop the narrative.

In fact, this is in line with work on Jazz musicians that we discussed last year.

This particular study found that activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) – a large chunk of the frontal lobes – reduces during Jazz improvisation, suggesting that the mental controls are eased up allowing a more free flowing mental style.

Link to Tom’s Prospect article ‘Tall Stories’.

Cold asylum

New Scientist has a gallery of striking photos taken from Christopher Payne’s book that details his photographic tour of abandoned asylums in the US.

In both the UK and the US, and, I suspect, in many other countries, there are numerous unused decaying mental asylums that have become obsolete as ‘care in the community’ has become the flag under which mental health services have been reformed or ignored.

The NewSci gallery captures the faded grandeur of some of these impressive buildings and has photographs of the devices and technology from a psychiatry of a bygone era.

As we discussed previously, many of the buildings are being converted into hotels, flats and the like with their past history hushed up, but what this photo set shows is that many more beautiful and architecturally unique buildings are simply being left to rot before they’re demolished.

By the way, the website of the book also has a fantastic slideshow with many more stunning photos – only hampered by the crippled flash interface. Look for the ‘Play Slideshow’ link at the bottom to kick it off.

Link to NewSci gallery of old asylum photos.
Link to website of Chris Payne’s ‘Asylum Book’.

Feliz Día Nacional del Psicólogo en Colombia

Colombia has an official Day of the Psychologist and you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s a self-declared promotional event by the psychology association here, but it isn’t, the day is established by law. Article 92 of Law 1090 establishes 20th November as the official celebration.

Psychology departments around the country usually celebrate the day with conferences and parties. I was kindly invited to give a talk on the ‘Neuropsicología de Alucinaciones’ at the four day conference (wow) at the University of Antioquia, so many thanks to everyone who attended.

Later on, there is a free concert at the university which will be broadcast live on radio station La Mega, so you can see the celebration is taken quite seriously.

It turns out that Colombia is not the only country with a ‘day of the psychologist’ as they also seem to happen in Argentina (13th October), Guatemala (23rd July), Uruguay (6th December), Mexico (22nd May) and Cuba (13th April).

I’m wondering whether this is purely a Latin American phenomenon, so if you know of any more, anywhere in the world, please let me know.

So, qué tengas un buen Día Nacional del Psicólogo and I’ll see you at the concert.

2009-11-20 Spike activity

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

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Neuroanthropology has an excellent piece on the late Lévi-Strauss and the development of the scientific study of cultural cognition and anthropology.

The Book of the Week in the Times Higher Education Supplement is ‘What Intelligence Tests Miss’.

Wired UK has a short but sensible piece on ‘how to tell if somebody is lying‘. In a nutshell, it’s more a statistical thing and there are no definite tell-tale signs.

There’s been some great posts on oxytocin during the last week or so over at Neurotopia.

New Scientist covers an interesting imaging study on the <a href="
“>differences between conscious and unconscious visual processing. As usual, ignore the headline.

Did a lake trigger a deadly disease? The Boston Globe discusses how the rare Lytico-Bodig disease might have emerged in New Hampshire. More on Metafilter.

Not Exactly Rocket Science covers an ingenious study on how sounds during sleep can improve previously learnt spatial associations.

Stupid title. Ridiculous picture. Interesting study. BBC News do a badly packaged write-up of a imaging study on the influence of hypnosis on the brain’s ‘default state’.

The Boston Globe covers some intriguing research on links between the economy and religious belief – particularly, believing in hell.

The BlueBrain project have created a computer simulation with as many neurons as a cat brain, according to The Times. The project is simulating cortical column neurons – almost no media outlets understand that ‘as many neurons’ does not mean ‘as complex as’. No matter how many ankles you simulate, you still haven’t created an artificial human.

PsyBlog has an interesting piece on whether ‘mirroring’ or copying other people’s body movements increases liking. Warning: dodgy hypnosis conclusion at the end.

There’s an excellent Car Zimmer piece in Discover Magazine on the ‘math instinct‘.

The Boston Review has an article on the clash between religion and PTSD treatment in the US military.

A study on how infants’ behaviour influences how their carers interact with them is covered by the ever-excellent BPS Research Digest.

Bloomberg reports, to paraphrase, that AstraZeneca are in the shit. Judge rules that claims about Seroquel increasing the risk of diabetes can be examined in court.

Lab based cognitive assessment, meet your nemesis – ecological validity. Yahoo! News reports on US military psychology experiments that will try and predict risk factors for PTSD – apart from being in a war that is – which has been concistently shown to be the biggest predictor of trauma in soldiers.

Cognitive Daily reports on a study finding that men are more tolerant of same-sex peers than women.

An artistic is to trigger an epileptic seizure in herself as part of an art show, according to The Independent