The 1911 Coca-Cola brain poison trial

The Psychologist has a fascinating article on how the world’s favourite tooth rot, Coca-Cola, was the subject of a 1911 court case brought by the US government who believed it damaged the brain.

Although curious enough in itself, the incident also launched the career of Harry Hollingworth – later one of the founders of advertising psychology – who was paid to create laboratory tests to see whether the soft drink really caused cognitive problems.

Hollingworth was only a graduate student at the time but took the money after better known psychologists wanted to avoid getting their hands dirty with corporate cash. Apparently, Hollingworth later wrote that “he accepted the offer from the Coca-Cola Company because at his young age he ‘had as yet, no sanctity to preserve’.”

The impetus behind the lawsuit was Harvey Washington Wiley, head of the Bureau of Chemistry of the US Department of Agriculture. Wiley had long been a vocal opponent of caffeine and was especially critical of its role in the popular beverage. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Coca-Cola Company marketed the beverage as ‘the ideal brain tonic’, emphasising the stimulant properties of the drink, noting in its advertising that it ‘invigorated the fatigued body and quickened the tired brain’. Wiley had testified before Congress that caffeine was a poison and a habit-forming drug. He was not fond of coffee or tea but was less critical of those drinks because the caffeine was an indigenous ingredient. But he opposed the sale of Coca-Cola on two grounds: the caffeine was an added ingredient, and the beverage was marketed to children.

As might be expected from a caffienated, sugar-packed drink, the sophisticated double-blind studies showed that people experienced a small boost in mental ability shortly after drinking it, although the case was thrown out for technical reasons.

Although Hollingworth didn’t continue doing drug-testing research, his experience of applying psychology to the corporate world undoubtedly opened the door to his future career in advertising.

Link to ‘Coca-Cola – Brain tonic or poison?’

Lights, camera, action potential

The Loom has a wonderful photo essay taken from a new book called ‘Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century’.

The photos range from the first ever known drawing of the nervous system, made by 11th century Arab scientist Ibn al-Haytham, to the beautiful pictures of the ‘brainbow‘ fluorescent neurons.

Don’t miss the caption below each picture that describes its origin and significance. The photo on the right is genuine human skull with phrenology markings.

Link to Loom photo essay.
Link to details of the book ‘Portraits of the Mind’.

The vision thing

The ever-interesting Oliver Sacks is interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air where he discusses cases from his new book on the extremes of visual perception.

If you’re a fan of Sacks’ work, like me, this programme is an absolute treat as the conversation ranges from the science of misrecognition to his own quite recent experiences of visual distortion caused by a type of tumour, a melanoma, which developed in his eye.

Needless to say, there are plenty of interesting diversions on the way and some quite personal moments interwoven with discussion on themes from The Mind’s Eye – which is apparently out today.

The NPR website has an excerpt from the book if you want a taster and Sacks is also about to start a brief book tour hitting a few cities in the US.

Link to NPR interview with Oliver Sacks.

Wikileaks: Psychological warfare in Iraq

The Wikileaks Iraq war documents give an insight into the use of ‘psychological warfare‘ by the United States military, illustrating how the PSYOP response evolved through the conflict.

If you want to pull out the raw reports, you can search the Wikileaks Iraq war archive by using the term ‘PSYOP’ or by clicking here.

Although it’s not clear how comprehensively the logs cover the day-to-day operation of US Psychological Operations, they do give a snapshot of the sort of challenges the units faced.

Out of the leaked reports, 84 mention PSYOP, although not all are directly about the unit (for example, in one, a mention is purely because some of their leaflets were found in a car).

However, out of the reports that are directly about the units themselves, perhaps most striking is how many reports of attacks there are.

I counted at least nine reports of attacks by improvised explosive devices (eg), two by rocket propelled grenades (eg) and units were also on the receiving end of shootings while handing out toys to children, conducting a billboard assessment and carrying out ‘atmospheric sampling’.

‘Atmospheric sampling’ is a phrase that turns up a lot in the reports, and I’m not entirely clear what it means, but this essay [pdf] from the Small Wars Journal seems to suggest its a sort of military market research:

The atmospheric report is filed in a database along with reports from a multitude of other organizations and planners must pull the information if (and it’s a big if) the report is ever referenced. PSYOP units glean atmospherics for two primary reasons; first to drive an understanding of the target audience and second to assess whether or not proposed or previously disseminated product has any effect.

This is one of the seemingly ongoing activities, along with delivering leaflets (eg), preparing statements for the media (eg), making radio broadcasts to the local people (eg), and accompanying general forces on everything from raids of mosques to investigating explosions.

However, it’s clear that when the logs start, in 2004, the units were used as more as a general purpose communication service to allow the military to communicate with the local populace, often after things got heated.

For example, they might be warning people to stay out of the streets for their own safety, or attempting to calm a crowd after they were angered when a car crash killed two civilians, or broadcasting radio messages in support of voting.

As the conflict develops, the reports start to discuss more detailed PSYOP responses that have specific points of information that the military wants to get across and the strategies they apply for doing so.

For example, this report from 26th January 2009 describes the PSYOP response to an explosion from a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device in Mosul (the blank spaces are where identifying information was removed):

IO [Information Operations] Recommendations and talking points:

___.To allow these criminals to conduct such attacks ___ to hurt the innocent people of Mosul and increase the likelihood of more attacks.

___.IP [Iraqi police] and IA [Iraqi army] are valiant guardians of your ___ security. These cowardly acts are to hurt you, you must protect them. (Protect the Protector Theme)

___.Prevent attacks like these by informing officials if you have any information of knowledge of these types of activities. Your information can prevent the death of those that protect you and your family.

___.Your efforts to secure your country must continue; you have chosen the right path. (Choose Campaign)

PSYOP: Should the /___ commander approve, ___ has products supporting the above campaigns for dissemination.

KEY Leader Engagements: Recommended /___ Commander to follow up with the Police Chief
___: Monitor for Media Feedback

Recommend sending ___-approved radio message (___-VBIED [Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device] and Protect Your Security Forces) to ___ and ___

I was particularly interested by the fact that some of the later reports mention specific themes or templates for messages (in this case the ‘Protect the Protector Theme’) that have presumably been developed to be deployed widely and ensure certain ideas are reinforced consistently.

It may be that the reports just contain more comprehensive descriptions of information operations that the earlier reports lacked, but the leaked logs do give the impression that the PSYOP response matures as the conflict develops, to convey more information in more complex and targeted ways .

Link to PSYOP records on Wikileaks Iraq war archive.
Link to excellent Wikipedia page on US PSYOP.

Impaled by comparison

The picture on the left is a famous 1550 portrait of the Hungarian nobleman Gregor Baci who was impaled through the head by a lance.

It was never known whether the picture had been exaggerated. Recently, a medical team from Austria reported a remarkably similar case in The Lancet where the patient survived and recovered with no ill effects. The CT scan of this modern-day Gregor Baci is visible on the right.

Although case reports of trauma describe single events only, they can contain very useful scientific information for applied surgery. The portrait of Gregor Baci from the collection of Archduke Ferdinand II of Austria (figure A) provokes the question: is the legend that Baci survived a piercing injury with a lance only a myth, or does medical fact indicate that such severe impalement of the head and neck can be survived? We were able to provide the answer, when a similar case of impalement presented to us.

The patient, a craftsman, was injured when a metal bar fell from the ceiling of a church with an altitude of about 14 m, impaling his head in an anterior-posterior direction (figure B)…

The patient had to undergo surgical treatment twice, and had a year of episodes with headache and moderate diplopia, but now, about 5 years after the accident, the patient does not show any related clinical symptoms…


Link to DOI entry for brief Lancet case report.

The outer limits of psychiatric genetics

The Wiring the Brain blog has a fantastic piece on the how whole genome sequencing is already showing us the limits of how we understand the genetics of mental illness.

Whole genome sequencing allows the entire length of someone’s DNA to be read and, when data from enough people has been collected, it’s possible to look for reliable links between genetic information and human traits.

The advantage of this technique is that it allows genetic links to be detected without needing a specific idea about what should link with what beforehand.

It’s often been cited as the ‘new hope’ for psychiatric genetics which attempts to understand the genetics of mental illness.

However, one difficulty with looking for genetic links with mental illness is that people diagnosed with conditions like schizophrenia or bipolar are unlikely to have exactly the same thing while the specific components are not perfectly measurable (there is no cut and dry way of classifying intrusive thoughts for example).

In addition, most genetic studies to date have found that changes in single genes can explain only a tiny fraction of the risk of developing a mental illness and are often present, although less frequently, in healthy people.

Owing to the fact that the heritability of mental illness can be quite high, the current thinking is that the risk is likely transmitted through lots of genes that, although individually have a small effect, can greatly increase the risk if transmitted together.

The Wiring the Brain post does a brilliant job of exploring why picking out these genes and genetic patterns may not just be a problem with not having enough data – but with the techniques themselves.

However, we will still likely be left with a situation where the statistical evidence we can get from considering the spectrum of mutations in single genes will run into mathematical limits. At some point it will be necessary to look for other types of evidence from outside the system. One type of evidence will come from analysing the biochemical pathways of the implicated genes – it is already becoming apparent that many such genes encode proteins that interact with each other…

The point about mathematical limits is an interesting one, as it may be that there are genes or genetic patterns which are important but have such a small effect that you would need a sample size so big (millions and millions of people perhaps) that your study would simply be impossible.

As the post indicates, this may kill the idea that the genetics of mental illness can be studied without any existing theories and just by looking at which links turn up.

It’s a bit like trying to work out how riots start by counting the different types of people in crowds and seeing which types of people are more likely to be present when a fight breaks out.

Without knowing about the roles of different people, you could easily conclude that the police are the ones responsible for the riot because they are always there in big numbers, while the firebrand orator demanding death to the government is irrelevant because there’s only one of him.

The Wiring the Brain piece covers this and several other issues and is one of the most interesting articles on psychiatric genetics I have read in a while. The blog, by the way, is consistently excellent, so definitely one to keep tabs on.

Link to Wiring the Brain on ‘Searching for a needle in a needle-stack’.

Erotic asphyxia and the limits of the brain

A guy who enjoyed whacking off while trying to strangle himself has provided important evidence that an outward sign considered to indicate severe irreversible brain damage can be present without any lasting effects.

It was long thought that a body response called decerebrate rigidity – where the body becomes stiff with the toes pointing and the wrists bending forward – was a sign of irreversible damage to the midbrain.

This sign is widely used in medical assessments to infer severe brain damage and has been observed in videos of people being executed by hanging.

A new study in The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology provides striking evidence that it is possible to recover from decerebrate rigidity owing to self-taped videos of a man who would strangle himself with a pair of pyjama pants suspended from the shower while masturbating.

The practice is known as autoerotic asphyxia and is based on the idea that restricted oxygen can enhance sexual pleasure – although is not recommended, not least because the medical literature is awash with cases of people who have died while attempting it.

Indeed, the gentleman described in the study did eventually die while hanging himself and when the forensic team investigated his house they found videos where he had filmed himself undertaking the risky sexual practice.

The three videos show him hanging himself while masturbating to the point where he lost consciousness and had the equivalent of an epileptic tonic-clonic seizure as he crashed to the ground. Each time, he regains consciousness and has no noticeable lasting effects.

In one of the videos, 20 seconds of decerebrate rigidity are clearly present. This was previously thought to be a sign of severe permanent brain damage – and yet he comes round, picks himself up and seems unaffected.

The study makes the interesting point that we still know very little about the effects of oxygen starvation on the brain.

For example, the widely quoted figure about brain cells dying after three to five minutes without oxygen is based entirely on animal studies and we don’t actually know the limit for humans.

As the authors note “There is no study to document this threshold of 3 to 5 minutes of ischemia [oxygen deprivation] to cause irreversible brain damage in human beings. Nevertheless, data obtained from animal studies were applied to human beings and the source of the threshold was later forgotten and assumed to be reliable.”

Link to PubMed entry for study.