Not Spike Activity

I often get emails asking why we don’t do Spike Activity posts any more. The simple answer is they take time and I now have a somewhat more unpredictable job where I am frequently ‘on the road’.

So until I return to a more predictable pace of life, I’m afraid they’re going to be taking a break, although a well earned one I hope.

However, if you’re a Twitter user, both me and Tom Stafford post mind and brain news as it strikes us at our respective accounts at @tomstafford and @vaughanbell

Interfacing with the brain

ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind has just broadcast a fantastic edition on neural prosthetics – the science of creating artificial limbs that are controlled through direct interfaces with the nervous system.

The programme looks at the some of the cutting-edge research motivated by the US Military’s need to replace lots of limbs blown off in combat.

Some fantastic stories and fascinating science. Highly recommended.

Link to All in the Mind on neural prosthetics.

Patients and power struggles

Medical History has a brief but good article on the political wranglings and scientific battles between psychiatry, psychoanalysis and clinical psychology in 20th Century America.

It’s by history of psychiatry ninja (not his official title) Andrew Scull, who tracks the events behind the waxing and waning of mental health fashions and how they have played out among professionals of different camps.

Psychoanalysis had managed initially to contain the potential threat posed by the drugs revolution, but by the mid-1970s, that resolution was threatening to break down. Antipsychotic drugs had proved to be an enormously lucrative market, and questions were beginning to be raised in many quarters about precisely what therapeutic advantages accrued from adding seemingly interminable and expensive psychoanalytic treatments to the mix.

A decade earlier, virtually every academic department of psychiatry was led by a psychoanalyst or a psychoanalytic fellow-traveller, but increasingly, the sums on offer to conduct laboratory research on potentially therapeutic compounds were exercising a powerful appeal, one bolstered by the critical importance of funded research in establishing pecking orders in large research universities.

It’s worth noting that quite a different story played out in Europe, where the fashion for psychoanalysis never really caught on and the success of mental health treatment were much less determined by the whims of insurance companies.

Link to ‘Mental Health Fight Club, 1940–2010’ (not the official title).

Musket to a brain surgeon

Phineas Gage is famous for having an iron bar being blown through his frontal lobes. Although his case is usually described as the first of its kind, this month’s edition of The Psychologist has a surprising article on many lesser known cases from the 1800s, usually due to mishaps with early firearms.

The piece is packed with amazing case vignettes of people who have suffered serious frontal lobe injury but were described as relatively unaffected.

This is one of the many striking examples:

In 1827 came a report by a Dr Rogers in the Medico-Chirurgical Transactions, where a young man received a frontal impact, again from a breech explosion. It was not until another three weeks, when the soldier, ‘discovered a piece of iron lodged within the head in the bottom of the wound from which a considerable quantity of bone had come away… it proved to be the breech pin of the gun three inches in length and three ounces in weight’. Four months later he was ‘perfectly cured’. Another case, here, was of an exploding breech pin penetrating 1½ inches into the brain, making a hole ¾ inch in diameter, resulting in an ‘escape of cerebral substance’. But ‘no severe symptoms occurred, and recovery took place in less than 24 days’.


Link to The Psychologist article ‘Blasts from the past’.

Diagnostic dilemma, innit bruv

I’ve just been directed to a wonderful 2007 case study from the British Medical Journal that reports how middle aged doctors can mistake street slang for symptoms of schizophrenia.

Detailed and repeated assessment of [the patient’s] mental state found a normal affect, no delusions, hallucinations, or catatonia, and no cognitive dysfunction. His speech, however, was peppered with what seemed (to his middle class and older psychiatrist) to be an unusual use of words, although he said they were street slang.

It was thus unclear whether he was displaying subtle signs of formal thought disorder (manifest as disorganised speech, including the use of unusual words or phrases, and neologisms) or using a “street” argot. This was a crucial diagnostic distinction as thought disorder is a feature of psychotic illnesses and can indicate a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

We sought to verify his explanations using an online dictionary of slang ( To our surprise, many of the words he used were listed and the definitions accorded with those he gave.

The article also contains a brief test where doctors can test themselves to see if they can distinguish between slang and thought disorder symptoms.

It’s probably worth noting that traditional British and, particularly London slang, could easily seem like thought disorder to the uninitiated as it is heavily based on word play and substitution.

For example, “I was having having a ruby when I caught Susan having a butchers at my missus’ new barnet” probably makes perfect sense to lots of British people, but if you’re not familiar with cockney rhyming slang, it could be mistaken for a language impairment.

I have noted that British sarcasm can cause similar difficulties during discussions with Americans.

Link to ‘Street slang and schizophrenia’ (via @Matthew Broome)

The princess who swallowed a glass piano

The Glass Piano is a wonderful BBC Radio 3 programme about Princess Alexandra of Bavaria who thought she had swallowed a glass piano.

The programme was created by writer and poet Deborah Levy who “considers the true story of Princess Alexandra Amelie of Bavaria, 1826-1875 who at the age of 23 was observed awkwardly walking sideways down the corridors of her family palace. When questioned by her worried royal parents, she announced that she had swallowed a grand glass piano.”

As we’ve discussed previously, glass delusions were quite regularly reported by physicians in the 19th century but are now seemingly extinct in a curious cultural shift in madness.

People who experienced the delusion believed that their body was entirely, or in part, made of glass

The Glass Piano is a curious blend between a drama and documentary that recounts the case of Princess Alexandra and explores the history of this curious conviction.

It has some fantastic insights from historian of psychiatry Erin Sullivan, a trauma specialist, and rather more unpredictably from psychoanalyst Susie Orbach who makes some genuinely insightful comments while at other times sounding like she’s been smoking a glass pipe:

“Certainly she would not have walked like a princess because in order to bear a piano inside of her she would have had to had her legs quite far apart. We want to think Freud because its that moment in history where Freud discovers that we’re all sexual beings. So you could say that her legs are far apart for that reason.”

You could indeed.

I have to say, however, that these somewhat whimsical comments are actually in the spirit of the piece, which mixes conjecture with solid historical research, original musical and drama.

Unfortunately, the audio for the piece was only available for a week but an mp3 of the programme has mysteriously found its way online which you can get here.

Link to programme information on BBC site.
Link to download / streaming of mp3.

The scent of the past

The Boston Globe has a fascinating piece on the growing movement to incorporate smells into the historical record and the technology that is allowing us to ‘record’ scents.

To put smells in a historical context is to add a whole dimension to how we understand the world. Boston’s Back Bay, for instance, has at different times been filled with the smells of a saltwater marsh, a cesspool, horses, and car exhaust. Some smells vanish, new ones arise, and some shift in a way that tells a cultural story.

The jasmine and leather notes of a Chanel perfume from 1927 help us understand the boldly androgynous women of the flapper era, just as the candied sweetness of the latest Victoria’s Secret fragrance tells us something about femininity today. What we smell in our cities, homes, and natural spaces is just as much a part of our lives as the what we see, hear, and touch.

It’s a fantastic article that touches on everything from the neuroscience of smell, to the cultural meaning of certain scents, to the science of storing and recreating odours from the past.

Link to fantastic article ‘A Whiff of History’.