Neuro street wear

Herb is a hip Berlin fashion label who have a fantastic collection of women’s clothing with a subtle brain scan motif.

The label is the work of designer Angela Herb and there are actually two collections inspired by the MRI scan.

It’s definitely a street wear collection but the clothes have a wonderfully understated futuristic feel.

Unfortunately, it seems like clothes are exclusively sold through boutiques in Germany so you may have to contact the label directly if you want to get hold of something from outside the country.

We occasionally feature mind and brain t-shirts on Mind Hacks but rarely anything this stylish.

Link to Herb collection one.
Link to Herb collection two.

Death of a gladiator

Roman gladiators took part in one of the most brutal sports in history, many dying by traumatic brain injury during their matches. A medical study published in Forensic Science International examined the skulls of deceased fighters, discovered in a gladiator graveyard from Turkey, and reveals exactly how they died and even what weapons delivered the fatal brain injury.

The graveyard was discovered by archaeologists in 1993 but this study is the result of applying modern forensic medicine, which more typically attempts to discover the cause of death by looking at human remains after a crime, to the ancient bones.

Gladiator matches were not free for alls. Each gladiator had a certain attack and defence weapon combination, and these were matched between pairs of fighters so none had an unfair advantage. Men of equal, speed, strength and skill were also matched together to ensure a fair fight.

Since no point system existed, fighting was always pursued until a decisive outcome, which could be any of the following alternatives: defeat through death, defeat due to injury preventing further combat, defeat due to exhaustion, a win, with the bestowal of a palm branch or a laurel crown, or a draw, with both opponents being allowed to depart the Arena alive. This was the most unlikely case, since the superiority of one fighter had to be proved to enable the public to reach a verdict.

The final decision of the loser’s fate resided within the hands of the games‚Äô organizer. To this end he appealed to the mood of the plebs. Upon the cry of iugula (lance him through), it was expected of the vanquished that he would set an example of the greatness of manhood (exemplum virtutis) and would motionlessly receive the death thrust. The turning down of the thumb signified to the spectators, not that the gladiator should be put to death, but rather that the gladiator was dead.

After the final blow, arena servants carried the combatant on a stretcher into the carcass chamber and gave the twitching body a deathblow. It is not known exactly how this execution was performed. The executor, a costumed arena servant, associated with the Roman god of death “Dis Pater” or the Etruscan counterpart “Charun” carried a deadly hammer accompanying the gladiator on his last journey.

The first task of the investigators was to work out whether the damage to the skulls was due to an earlier blow the fighter survived, the death blow, or whether the bones had been damaged since the fighter was buried.

Living bone contains fluid-filled vessels, grease, and collagen fibres, which makes it more durable, flexible and, most importantly, it doesn’t splinter when broken. This allowed the research team to work out which skull fractures happened at the time of death. Furthermore, any sign of fracture healing shows that the gladiator survived the injury.

Once this had been established the researchers could start to match up the deadly fractures with the types of weapon they knew existed at the time.

Two examples of skulls are on the right, with the likely weapons that delivered the final blow illustrated in the white boxes underneath – one a hammer and the other a trident. These were identified by looking at the unique damage patterns caused by the impact of specific weapons.

Out of the 10 skulls with deadly fractures, the cause of death in 7 was a puncture wound from weapons such as a trident, javelin, pointed hammer or sword, and, interestingly, three were caused by being hit by the blunt force of a shield.

Deadly blows were either over the frontal area (above the eyes and forehead) or the parietal area (above and slightly behind the ears), whereas all the blows that the gladiators survived were at the front of the skull.

The researchers suggest that this is because death blows were usually given after the gladiator had been beaten and so were more likely to be from behind, whereas survivable blows were more likely to occur in training where less deadly weapons were used.

Link to PubMed entry for ‘Head injuries of Roman gladiators’.

The internet, depression and drinking a glass of water

Photo by Flickr user Hoggheff aka Hank Ashby aka Mr. Freshtags. Click for sourceA new study has made headlines around the world that claim that internet use is linked to depression despite better evidence from previous studies that there is no substantial link.

The study itself is a fairly straightforward online survey with the key finding that out of 1,319 people who completed the questionnaires, 18 were identified as ‘addicted’ by Kimberly Young’s Internet Addiction Questionnaire and these people were more likely to score highly on the BDI – a standard questionnaire to measure depression.

The study itself was well conducted although it is not a surprising finding because Young’s Internet Addiction Questionnaire (which you can read online here) asks lots of questions about emotional distress, so it’s hardly surprising that people who say they’re distressed on one questionnaire will say they’re distressed on the other.

I have criticised the concept of internet addiction on the basis that the whole concept doesn’t make sense, but research has also shown that these ‘diagnostic’ questionnaires are not particularly reliable, meaning they not a good guide even to what they claim they’re doing.

But perhaps the most important point, is that this study is just one in a long line of studies that have looked at whether internet use is linked to changes in mood.

Recently, a type of study called a meta-analysis was published that looked at all of these previous studies to see what the overall effect was – in essence, a mathematical aggregation of all the reported findings to get at the big picture.

This meta-analysis found that there was a statistically reliable link between internet use and depression, but one so small as to be insignificant. In fact, it found that internet was responsible for between 0.02% and 0.03% of total changes in mood (stats geeks: the variance was not reported directly but I calculated it from the r by the coefficient of determination).

In other words, internet use explains so little of a person’s depression that it’s irrelevant. It’s like knowing that hypothermia is a serious medical condition and that drinking a glass of water reliably lowers body temperature, but by such a small amount as to be medically unimportant.

Interestingly, I am quoted in some of the news stories about the study. Actually, I was contacted by a BBC journalist and some other stories have seemingly just nicked the quotes (often wrongly describing me as a psychiatrist).

What’s curious is that I sent the BBC journalist a link to the meta-analysis, even explained what it found and what a meta-analysis is, and included comments about why the study doesn’t change the general conclusion.

Instead of focusing on the existing evidence, I am quoted as being a naysayer. I have not been misquoted but the most important scientific point is omitted at the expense of presenting my words. This seems to be a common pattern where news stories often privilege opinion over data, when science privileges data over opinion.

In fact, the motto of the Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific society, translates as “on the words on no-one”, but news stories often turn the hierarchy of evidence on its head, giving a skewed impression of the most fundamental way in which science works.

In this case, to suggest that science has established that internet use is strongly linked to depression when we know that it isn’t.

Link to PubMed entry for latest study.
Link to PubMed entry for meta-analysis.

Blue Brain Year One

Film-maker Noah Hutton has just released an excellent 15-minute documentary on the Blue Brain project that captures the team as they work and explains the goals of the ambitious attempt to simulate animal, and eventually, human scale neural networks on computer.

It’s an interesting look both inside the scientific mission and inside the mind of project leader Henry Markram, whom it must be said, is largely talking about the potential of the project rather than what it can do now.

It’s probably worth saying that Markram is not known for underselling his efforts, and some of his projections seem a little unrealistic.

At one point he mentions that the project could be used in hospital so doctors can simulate the effects of drugs on a digital brain to see if they’ll work before giving patients the real thing. Best of luck with that chaps.

It’s a great short piece, however, and apparently there are more to come in the future.

Link to Blue Brain: Year One.

Fight club debate on computers and kids’ brains

On Thursday, I shall be taking part in a live debate hosted by The Times Online entitled ‘Is screen culture damaging our children’s brains?’ where I will be debating psychologist Tracey Alloway who recently made headlines by suggesting Facebook ‘enhances intelligence’ but Twitter ‘diminishes it’.

It one of those online chat things but you are welcome to sign up and take part. It happens at 1pm UK time which turns out to be far-too-early-o’clock Colombian time so I may be in my dressing gown. Don’t let that put you off.

An article on the same topic will also be coming out on Thursday which should help set the scene and which I’ll link to when it appears.

Link to ‘Is screen culture damaging our children’s brains?’ debate.

Injecting heroin with a doctor

Slate has two articles on an innovative but controversial service in Vancouver, Canada, that provides injecting drug users with a place to safely inject drugs with clean equipment and medical staff on hand.

The project, ‘Insite’, is based on a ‘harm reduction‘ approach which is driven by the idea that users should be encouraged to take drugs in the safest way possible.

This is partly an admission that addiction treatment is not very successful on its own, but partly a public health measure in that injecting drug users have much higher rates of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis and are more likely to pass them on to other people.

It is also the case that one of the biggest dangers from injecting drugs is the actual practice of injecting, as unsanitary conditions, ad-hoc ‘cooking up’ and unpredictable street dope as become much more risky when the final product is injected into the bloodstream.

These services can be controversial in some places as they can be seen to be condoning drug use, although some countries are now going further and actually prescribing heroin to addicts.

One of the biggest impacts on society is not the fact that a tiny minority of people are damaging themselves with smack, but that they tend to commit crimes to feed their habit and support a violent criminal network of dealers.

Methadone is a heroin substitute that has been prescribed for years and we know that it can stabilise the lives of users and increase their chance of kicking the habit.

But it is often not what users want. It stops the withdrawals, as it’s another form of opioid drug, but it doesn’t feel the same and still has the danger of overdose. One common problem is known euphemistically in the medical literature ‘methadone diversion‘ where users sell their methadone to buy street drugs.

Several countries have trialled the prescription of heroin itself, with, it turns out, a great deal of success – including better health, a reduction in criminal activity and a higher chance of actually kicking the habit.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but one of the advantages of these projects is that the user is constantly in contact with health professionals who can provide addiction treatment.

The political and local opposition to harm reduction services is usually immense, however. Politicians want to be seen to be ‘tough on drugs’ and no-one, and I mean no-one, wants one of these clinics near where they live.

The Slate articles looks into the day-to-day running and talks to some of the clients of the Vancouver programme, and provides an insight into the challenges such services face. There’s also a gallery of photos that captures the project in action.

Link to Slate article ‘Welcome to Insite’.
Link to Slate article ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’.
Link to photos of the Insite project.

Gladiator’s blood as a cure for epilepsy

I just stumbled across this fascinating article from the Journal of the History of Neurosciences about the use of gladiators’ blood as a cure for epilepsy in Ancient Rome. Surprisingly, the practice continued into modern times.

Between horror and hope: gladiator’s blood as a cure for epileptics in ancient medicine.

J Hist Neurosci. 2003 Jun;12(2):137-43.

Moog FP, Karenberg A.

Between the first and the sixth century a single theological and several medical authors reported on the consumption of gladiator’s blood or liver to cure epileptics. The origins of the sacred or apoplectic properties of blood of a slain gladiator, likely lie in Etruscan funeral rites. Although the influence of this religious background faded during the Roman Republic, the magical use of gladiators’ blood continued for centuries. After the prohibition of gladiatorial combat in about 400 AD, an executed individual (particularly had he been beheaded) became the “legitimate” successor to the gladiator. Occasional indications in early modern textbooks on medicine as well as reports in the popular literature of the 19th and early 20th century document the existence of this ancient magical practice until modern times. Spontaneous recovery of some forms of epilepsy may be responsible for the illusion of therapeutic effectiveness and for the confirming statements by physicians who have commented on this cure.

The article has some amazing reports of how the practice continued into the last century:

In his autobiography, the Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen reported a striking observation in 1823: ‘‘I saw a pitiful poor person made to drink by his superstitious parents a cup of the blood of an executed person, in an attempt to cure him from epilepsy.’’ At the public execution of a murderer in the provincial town of Hanau near Frankfurt in 1861, a crowd of women had to be prevented by police from dipping rags into the freshly-spilled blood. At about the same time executioners in Berlin were paid two taler per blood-drenched handkerchief.

A last and final dramatic report of this kind was published in a Saxon newspaper in 1908 after the execution of a murderess: ‘‘On the day of the execution an old woman from a neighbouring village pushed her way through the crowds around the court buildings to request a small amount of the delinquent’s blood from the security officials. She wanted to help a young girl related to her who suffered from epilepsy, as the blood of an executed person was believed to have great healing power against this disease’’ (quoted from Seyfarth, 1913, p. 279).

Link to PubMed entry for article.
Link to DOI entry for same.