Time-space fusion

Neurophilosophy has an excellent piece on ‘time-space’ synaesthesia where affected individuals experience units of time – such as hours, days, or months – as occupying specific locations in space relative to their own body.

The image on the right is taken from a BBC News article on time-space synaesthesia and was drawn by one lady to illustrate how days of the week appear to her.

However, Neurophilosophy piece covers two new studies, one on a person with synaesthesia who experiences months in the space around her body in the form of a ‘7’ shape:

Michelle Jarick of the Synaesthesia Research Group at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and her colleagues describe the case of an individual whose time-space synaesthesia has a previously undescribed feature. Like other time-space synaesthetes, the 21-year-old individual, known as L, experiences the time of day and the months of the year as being represented in the space around her body. She experiences the hours of the day in the form of a large “clock face”, and her mental calender consists of a giant number “7”, which extends for approximately 1 meter around her waist, and on which the months of the year are arranged.

Both of the studies covered in the article demonstrate a crucial technique in synaesthesia research – in part, a demonstration that the effect is a genuine cross-over of the senses.

The general technique is the same no matter what form of synaesthesia you’re testing. It involves finding a task which will be changed by the triggered sense but not (or not so much) by the original perception.

For example, with the lady who drew the layout of her months in the image above, October appears on her right and July appears on her left.

So if you did a reaction task that involved indicating what side a word appeared on, you’d expect someone with this form of synaesthesia to do worse when October appeared on the left and July appeared on the right, owing to the confusion caused by the unfamiliar associations, or better when they appeared on the expected sides.

This form of study, where synaesthesia can be shown to improve or worsen performance on other tasks related mostly to the triggered perception is the basis of much research in this area, and the Neurophilosophy piece outlines how these two new studies have shown how time-space fusion is associated with better abilities in understanding time and space.

Link to Neurophilosophy on ‘The cognitive benefits of time-space synaesthesia’.
Link to BBC News on time-space synaesthesia.

Selecting for kuru resistant cannibals

New Scientist reports on a new study on how a gene that gives protection against the deadly brain disease kuru became more common in people exposed to the condition through their cannibalistic tradition of eating the bodies of dead relatives.

Kuru is a prion disease, meaning the damage is caused by a poorly arranged or folded protein molecule which can trigger the same damaging changes in other proteins it comes into contact with.

The condition is related to what we know as ‘mad cow disease’ and causes a distinctive form of shaking, brain degeneration and eventually leads to death. It was restricted to the South Fore people of Papua New Guinea who seemed to pass on the condition by their tradition of to eating deceased relatives at mortuary feasts.

This new study shows that over time a new variant of the PRNP gene emerged in the population which gave protection against kuru.

Because kuru is deadly and was widespread, the emergence of the gene shows evolution in action:

The mutation first arose about 200 years ago by accident in a single individual, who then passed it down to his or her descendants. “When the kuru epidemic peaked about 100 years back, there were maybe a couple of families who found that they and their children survived while all their neighbours were dying, and so on to today’s generation, who still carry the gene,” says Mead. “So it was a very sudden genetic change under intense selection pressure from the disease,” he says.

If you want some background on kuru and how prion diseases affect the brain, you can’t go far wrong with a fantastic Neurophilosophy article from last year.

Link to NewSci on ‘Gene change in cannibals reveals evolution in action’.
Link to abstract of study.
Link to excellent Neurophilosophy article on kuru.

Lady luck helps gamblers (lose not quite so badly)

A study on male gamblers just published in the Journal of Gambling Studies found that having a girl on your arm does bring ‘luck’ of sorts, as slot machine gamblers had fewer losses when accompanied by a female.

I am tempted to label this the ‘James Bond Effect’ but in gambling, good fortune is relative, so if you think good luck means pissing slightly less of your hard earned cash down the drain than you would have done anyway, may lady luck be your guiding light.

The study also found an interesting effect of slot machine gambling on mood: people feeling low beforehand cheered up, while those who felt happy or neutral felt worse afterwards.

Mood and Audience Effects on Video Lottery Terminal Gambling.

J Gambl Stud. 2009 Nov 17. [Epub ahead of print]

Mishra S, Morgan M, Lalumière ML, Williams RJ.

Little is known about the situational factors associated with gambling behavior. We induced 180 male participants (mean age: 21.6) into a positive, negative, or neutral mood prior to gambling on a video lottery terminal (VLT). While gambling, participants were observed by either a male peer, female peer, or no one. Induced mood had no effect on gambling behavior. Participants induced into a negative mood prior to gambling, however, reported more positive moods after gambling, whereas those with positive and neutral moods reported more negative moods after gambling. Participants observed by either a male or female peer spent less time gambling on the VLT compared to those not observed. Participants observed by a female peer lost less money relative to the other observer conditions. Degree of problem gambling in the last year had little influence on these effects. Some practical implications of these findings are discussed.

Link to summary of study on PubMed.

Do blind people hallucinate on LSD?

I’ve just found a remarkable 1963 study [pdf] from the Archives of Opthalmology in which 24 blind participants took LSD to see if they could experience visual hallucinations.

It turns out, they can, although this seems largely to be the case in blind people who had several years of sight to begin with, but who later lost their vision.

Those blind from a very early age (younger than two years-old) did not report visual hallucinations, probably because they never had enough visual experience to shape a fully-functioning visual system when their brain was still developing.

It is evident that a normal retina is not needed for the occurrence of LSD-induced visual experiences. These visual experiences do not seem to differ from the hallucinations reported by normal subjects after LSD.

Such phenomena occurred only in blind subjects who reported prior visual activity. The drug increased the frequency of visual events such as spots, lights, dots, and flickers. However, the complex visual experiences reported by 3 subjects after LSD did not occur after placebo or in ordinary experience.

It is interesting to note that duration of blindness was not related to the occurrence of visual hallucinations; nor was intelligence, acuity of visual memory, or use of visual imagery in speech.

I mentioned in an earlier post on auditory hallucinations in deaf people that I’d heard rumours of studies on LSD in blind people but never found any reports. This study is not the only one it seems. The paper reviews several other studies in the same area.

Three other reports deal with the effects of hallucinogenic drugs on blind subjects. Alema reported that 50 micrograms of orally administered LSD induced elaborate visual hallucinations in a subject with bilateral enucleations of the eyeball. However, the effects of 50 micrograms of LSD are stated to have persisted for the incredibly long period of 5 days (they usually last 6 hours). This subject was noted to have spontaneous visual activity.

Zador administered mescaline orally in doses of 0.05 to 0.4gm to 10 blind subjects. Elaborate visual hallucinations usually followed. Most of the subjects had prior spontaneous visual activity, but it is difficult to evaluate this activity because they also had central nervous system diseases. The presence or absence of light perception was not specified for this group, and no control studies were carried out.

Forrer and Goldnerr gave LSD, 1 microgram per kilogram to 2 blind volunteers, both of whom had suffered destruction of the optic nerves. Neither reported visual hallucinations, no mention was made of prior spontaneous hallucinations, and no mention was made of prior spontaneous visual activity.

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

As I walk through the uncanny valley

Seed Magazine has an interesting piece on the ‘uncanny valley‘ effect, where humanoid figures become increasingly more attractive until they’re ‘a bit too lifelike’ and start seeming uncomfortably eerie.

It’s a fantastic piece because it discusses the development of the concept of ‘uncanniness’ – from the initial explanations by Freud to some tentative experimental studies that attempts to explain why some androids feel a bit creepy.

Disturbing experiences that feel both familiar and strange are instances of the “uncanny,” an intuitive concept, yet one that has defied simple explanation for more than a century. Interest in the particular occurrences of the uncanny, in which humans are bothered by interaction with human-like models, began as a psychological curiosity. But as our ability to design artificial life has increased—along with our dependence on it—getting to the heart of why people respond negatively to realistic models of themselves has taken on a new importance. Attempts to understand the origins of this reaction, known since the 1970s as the “uncanny valley response,” have drawn on everything from repressed fears of castration to an evolutionary mechanism for mate selection, but there has been little empirical evidence to assess the validity of these ideas.

I’ve always wondered whether people with robot fetishes, who get sexually aroused by android-like sex partners, are less susceptible to the uncanny valley effect.

Best of luck getting funding for that research project, I think to myself.

Link to Seed article ‘Into the Uncanny Valley’.

Chemo mainline to the brain

The New York Times has a fascinating article on how surgeons are attempting to treat aggressive and fatal brain tumours by injecting chemotherapy drugs directly into the brain.

One of the challenges for drug makers is that there are many substances that would otherwise have an effect in the brain, but it’s very hard to get them there from the bloodstream because the blood-brain barrier filters out all but the smallest molecules.

The NYT article discusses a technique borrowed from stroke treatment to deliver chemotherapy directly to the tumour or area from where the tumour has been removed.

In certain sorts of stroke a blood clot forms and blocks blood vessels, depriving the brain of oxygen. One important treatment is called thrombolysis where doctors can inject a clot dissolving enzyme through super fine flexible tubes called microcatheters.

They can insert these into a blood vessel in the lower body and then pass them through the the network of veins and arteries until they reach the affected blood vessel in the brain, delivering the ‘clot busting’ enzyme to exactly where it’s needed.

This new technique for brain cancer has apparently borrowed this technology to deliver chemotherapy to a specific area to treat one of the deadlist form of brain tumours – the glioblastoma.

The treatment is still in the research phase, so it’s not clear it has any benefits, but the article is an interesting take on a new approach to treating this condition with a life expectancy of little over a year:

The study, which began in August, is still in its earliest phase, meaning its main goal is to measure safety, not efficacy ‚Äî to find out if it is safe to spray Avastin directly into brain arteries and at what dose. Nonetheless, the doctors were pleased when M.R.I. scans of the first few patients showed that the treatment seemed to erase any sign of recurring glioblastomas. But how long the effect will last remains to be seen…

The complexity of a study like this goes beyond the science. Clinical trials are also a complicated pact, emotionally and ethically, between desperate patients and doctors who must balance their ambition as researchers against their duty as clinicians, and must walk a fine line between offering too much hope and not enough.

Link to NYT piece ‘Breaching a Barrier to Fight Brain Cancer’.

The Argentinian love affair with psychoanalysis

The Wall Street Journal has a revealing article on why Argentina has the largest concentration of psychologists anywhere in the world and why it has a long-standing cultural fascination with psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalysis is a set of psychological theories and form of psychotherapy based strongly on the ideas of Freud. Buenos Aires is one of the world centres of psychoanalysis and has been since the earliest days of Freud’s work.

Unlike in many countries, where psychoanalysis was, and remains, a psychology for the rich, the practice took off in Argentina during the 1960s to the point where is is common for everyday folk to see an analyst. The WSJ cites a recent survey suggesting that 32% of Argentinians have seen an analyst at some point in their lives.

Argentina is also known as a centre of Lacanian psychoanalysis, based on the work of French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan. If you can, imagine a French post-modern take on Freud. If you can’t, reading Lacan is unlikely to help because it’s an almost impenetrable reinterpretation of what was already a set of theories that was fairly loopy in places.

But psychoanalysis is more than a psychological practice in Argentina, it is a central part of the culture, and the WSJ article explores some of its social popularity.

Psychoanalysis is embedded in the geography of Buenos Aires, where many analysts are clustered in a neighborhood popularly known as Villa Freud.

Freudian thought colors political reporting. The newsweekly Noticias recently turned to a panel of 10 psychoanalysts to explain the behavior of ex-president Néstor Kirchner, who has been stealing the policymaking spotlight from his wife, Cristina, the current president.

One magazine query: What to make of Mrs. Kirchner’s statement that her husband sleeps in the fetal position?

Meanwhile, on TV, a drama series called “Tratame Bien,” (“Treat Me Well”), focuses on the travails of Jos√© and Sofia, a husband and wife, each of whom has an analyst. Facing midlife crises, the two make a momentous decision: retaining a third analyst they can see together for couples’ therapy.

Interestingly, lots of Latin America is still heavily influenced by psychoanalysis, probably due to the historical influences of the USA to the North and Argentina in the West.

However, since working here, I’ve realised that doing evidence-based empirical psychology and psychiatry is a lot more difficult in countries with limited resources.

Access to the evidence is expensive (thanks to the use of restrictive copyright and excessive pricing by scientific journals) and research is difficult when there is little free time and few funding opportunities.

However, this is much less of an issue with psychoanalysis because the major source of information is your own experience, insights and work with the patient, plus discussions in a limited set of journals.

In other words, it’s much easier to fulfil the requirements of what is expected of a well-informed competent psychoanalytic practitioner than what is expected of a scientifically-oriented evidence-based psychologist.

This, I suspect, is one of the many reasons that psychoanalysis remains popular in Latin America.

Link to WSJ piece on psychoanalysis in Argentina (via PCFTI).
Link to entry for Argentina in the International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis.