Mind and brain science: an instant overview

A new online tool called brainSCANr visually summarises the psychology and neuroscience literature to give you a network overview of which are the terms most connected to the target concept in scientific publications.

You can see the example for ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’, otherwise known as PTSD, below. Click here to see it full size on the actual website.

The target concept is in the bottom right, marked with a star, and you can immediately see the brain areas, psychological concepts and other disorders most associated with the diagnosis.

The maps are created by looking at how often different words co-occur in the scientific literature, which, as the creators note, is not the same is looking at how concepts are thought of, but it should give a rough approximation.

You can’t just tap any word into it at the moment, as it’s based on a database of concepts, although the searchable list of terms is still quite comprehensive.

However, it’s an inventive new tool which is a fantastic way of getting a quick overview of a field.

Link to brainSCANr.

Post-coma nail trauma

Being in coma could play havoc with your nail care routine.

A 1997 report from the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry notes how discoloured fingernails may be a secondary effect of coma owing to the side-effects of a common medical assessment for consciousness.

The test is nothing more high-tech than giving the finger a hard prod with a pencil to see if there is any reaction to pain, which is a common test on unconscious patients.

In fact, it forms part of the universally used Glasgow Coma Scale. You’ll often hear doctors saying “the patient was admitted with a GCS of…” followed by a number up to 15 which rates how conscious and alert the patient is, depending on their reaction to various prods, pokes and verbal requests.

The brief article reported an unintended side-effect of repeated Glasgow Coma Scale assessments after a patient woke up from coma to find her nails all black and blue.

A 30 year old woman was admitted to hospital with a rapidly progressive decline in level of consciousness and seizures. Neuroimaging studies disclosed thrombus in the superior sagittal sinus, bilateral cerebral venous infarctions, and oedema. She was treated with intravenous heparin and propofol for control of agitation and increased intracranial pressure. She made an excellent recovery.

Three weeks after admission she alerted us to a painless brownish discolouration of many of her fingernails. Bilateral subungual haematomas in different stages of resolution were noted. These lesions had been created by frequent nail bed compression with a pencil to monitor motor response, a common practice of applying noxious pain stimuli in comatose patients admitted to neurological intensive care units.

Obviously, if you’re a Goth, Glasgow Coma Scale evaluations are likely to have much less of an impact on your post-coma nail care routine.

Link to brief JNNP piece on ‘Coma Nails’.

An informal chat about hard data

Scientific American has an excellent article on the sociology of communicating new discoveries and how the relationship between science and journalism has changed over the years.

It’s a remarkably comprehensive analysis that looks not only at science publication but how it relates to our regular patterns of social communication.

This informal style of communication has been deliberately excluded from science in recent decades through the adoption of peer-review and a uniform impersonal writing style, as a way of imbuing the process with a form of institutional trust.

According to the author, online science pioneer Bora Zivkovic, this model is now being challenged by internet science writing where trust is gained through transparency – showing your working and background through links to original source – rather than having an institutional stamp of approval.

I think he’s a little hard on traditional science journalists, but as an analysis of how trust works in science communication, and how that is being affected by the online science community, it’s an incredibly thought-provoking piece.

Link to ‘The line between science and journalism is getting blurry…again’

The plant of human puppets

I’ve made a radio programme with ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind about burundanga, a mysterious street drug used in South America which is widely believed to remove free will.

The name ‘burundanga’ is a popular term and doesn’t refer to a single thing, but its most commonly associated with the brugmansia plants.

They can incapacitate people in high enough doses owing to them being rich in a psychoactive chemical called scopolomine. Criminals spike unsuspecting members of the public and then rob or attack them.

Since living in Colombia, I’ve constantly heard people tell me that the plant removes free will – the affected people just do whatever they’re told. They become, in effect, human puppets.

To me, this always sounded unlikely, and it struck me that, if this was genuinely the case, this might be a hugely important discovery in neuroscience, because free will and agency are two of the most complex and difficult to grasp areas.

But the plant also has hundreds, and probably thousands, of years of history as a psychoactive component of the religious rituals of the indigenous people of the continent, to the point where it holds a central place in some of their founding myths.

Needless to say, the chance to wander round Colombia making a documentary about a psychoactive plant at the intersection of neuroscience, myth and criminal science was too good to miss, so I hope you enjoy the journey.

It sounds wonderful, by the way, but almost entirely due to presenter and producer Natasha Mitchell’s magic at the mixing desk when making sense of my raw materal.

I’ve also written an article about the substance, including the first attempt to use it as a ‘truth drug’ after a gruesome murder, and there’s an image gallery available too.

Link to AITM on the plant that steals your free will with mp3 download.
Link to my article on the AITM blog.
Link to image gallery.

Mind and brain bloggers: wanted for your data

If you are a mind and brain blogger, Dr Alice Bell wants to research you. Alice is at the Science Communication Group at Imperial College, London, and is asking us to complete a survey as part of an investigation into the psychology and neuroscience blogosphere.

Are you wondering whether this is you? Here’s who the research project is trying to recruit:

By ‘brain bloggers’ I mean bloggers who write about the stuff that goes in people’s heads, whatever we think this stuff is. Such bloggers might focus on neurology or psychology, or another field entirely. It might be the history, anthropology or commercial applications of these fields. It might come under ‘research blogging’, journalism, ‘public engagement’ or some form of political activism (or several of these at once, or something else entirely). This focus might be exclusively brain-y, or brain-ish issues might be topics they occasionally blog about in the course of other work.

There are more details at the link below, including all the questions.

Link to Alice Bell’s mind and brain blogger survey.

The brain scanner’s prayer

The brilliant Neuroskeptic has created a version of The Lord’s Prayer for the fMRI generation. It is at once spiritually uplifting, scientifically edifying and very, very funny.

Our scanner, which art from Siemens,
Hallowed be thy coils.
Thy data come;
Thy scans be done;
In grey matter as it is in white matter.
Give us this day our daily blobs.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass onto our scan slots.
And lead us not into the magnet room carrying a pair of scissors,
But deliver us from volunteers who can’t keep their heads still.
For thine is the magnet,
The gradients,
And the headcoil,
For ever and ever (at least until we can afford a 7T).

If you don’t read the Neuroskeptic blog, you’re missing out, as it has some of the best mind and brain coverage on the net and, it seems, the occasional request for divine neurointervention.

Link to The Scanner’s Prayer over at Neuroskeptic.
Link to Neuroskeptic blog front page.

2010-12-17 Spike activity

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

The Guardian asks whether the internet encourages insidious and bullying behaviour? Well, does it, punk?

We typically don’t remember our early years but it turns out this amnesia develops over time, as a brilliant piece on ‘The shifting boundary of childhood amnesia‘ at Psychology Today recounts.

BBC Radio 4 had a good documentary on the influence of Freud on British culture. Only three more days to listen – annoying, I know.

There’s a brilliant post on consciousness, mental time travel and the brain over at the consistently excellent Neuroskeptic.

BBC News report on the switch to short-acting barbiturate pentobarbital for the death penalty in the US. “a sedative typically used to put down animals” says the BBC, although they don’t mention it’s also used in the acute treatment of epileptic seizures.

Science News covers a new study on the intriguing but not very pleasant hallucinogen salvia divinorum.

Dan Ariely’s blog Irrationally Yours looks at how perception of value relates to worker effort not results.

The woman with no fear (and no amygdalae). Coverage from Not Exactly Rocket Science and Neurophilosophy outdid all the mainstreams.

The New York Times has a Bayesian take on Julian Assange: “…from the standpoint of Bayesian reasoning, to think we can separate out the merits of the charges from their political motivations.”

Footage of Freud and psychoanalysis – from the 1940s. Advances in the History of Psychology finds two archive gems.

The Guardian science blog covers an interesting study that tested whether sleep deprivation can prevent post-traumatic stress disorder.

For the first time, marijuana use is more common in American kids than cigarette smoking. The excellent Addiction Inbox has a great write-up.

Macleans has a great piece on fashionable paranoias. Nothing to fear but wifi and fluoride.

There’s an excellent analysis of how top flight science journals handle studies on language over at Child’s Play. In brief, they don’t.

The New York Times has a long but rewarding piece on ‘embodied cognition‘ by philosopher of mind Andy Clark.

The top 10 psychology studies of 2011 have been selected with excellent taste by Neuronarrative.

You all know the excellent Brain Ethics blog has just been relaunched right? New pieces on how to teach neuromarketing and whether genes make up your mind.

The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law has a thoughtful piece by a psychiatrist reflecting on Foucault, forensic psychiatry, and committing patients to hospital against their will.

We believe we have more free will than other people. Neurotic Physiology feels compelled to cover this fascinating new study.

The Guardian science blog has an eye-opening piece about the discrepancy between which childhood neurological disorders get the funding and which are most common.

The way in which data is collected for a psychology study affects the sort of people who volunteer. The BPS Research Digest covers the subtle effects of research design.

New Scientist has the best books of 2010 as chosen by neuroscience Steven Rose.

Psychologically inclined filmmaker Adam Curtis finds a social history gem on his BBC blog The Medium and the Message: a 1969 British documentary on the office Christmas party.

Seed Magazine looks at the science of interconnectedness and understanding risk in a connected world.

Contrary to lay wisdom, high trusters were significantly better than low trusters were at detecting lies. Barking up the Wrong Tree covers a counter-intuitive study.