Crushed snails as neurology treatment

From a curious paper just published in the The Neuroscientist entitled “Plastering the Head with Crushed Snails to Treat Pediatric Hydrocephalus: An Ancient Therapy with a Pharmacological Basis.”

In the Middle Ages, medical therapy for pediatric hydrocephalus [a condition caused by the accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid inside the brain that can lead to enlargement of the head] was characterized by the application of drying substances to decrease the size of the heads of affected children.

A poultice of crushed snails applied to the head was considered to be one of the most powerful therapies for reducing swelling caused by excessive humors. Incunabula (texts printed in Europe before 1501 CE) and Renaissance texts document the extended use of this therapy, which was considered by physicians to be effective and less dangerous than surgical treatment…

It has been demonstrated that snails and slugs possess high concentrations of glycosaminoglycans and mucopolysaccharides…

Therefore, we think that the ancient practice of plastering the head with crushed snails in pediatric hydrocephalus, although not based on science as we know it, may have had at least some basis.

Negatively charged glycosaminoglycans absorb and retain large amounts of water and are important components of connective tissue. Because of these properties, glycosaminoglycans are currently used under various conditions to rehydrate the skin.


Link to closed access paper in The Neuroscientist.

Casting out the epilepsy ignorance demons

The New York Times has a surprising article about stigma surrounding epilepsy in Sierra Leone that describes some quite astounding beliefs about the condition.

Stigma here is based on two myths: that epilepsy is contagious and that it is caused by demonic possession. Dr. Lisk is quick to point out that beliefs about possession traverse societal boundaries. “You think it relates to level of education, of literacy, but somehow it doesn’t,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the most educated people who will tell you that it’s demonic. They say it’s in the Bible.” (Some biblical references to possession have long been thought to describe people with epilepsy.)

As a result, discrimination against people with epilepsy here is blatant and unabashed, and it begins in elementary school. “The school authorities often ask the students with epilepsy to leave,” Mr. Bangura said. “There is the notion that epilepsy is contagious; so when somebody has an attack during school, the perception is that if somebody happens to step on the spittle of an affected student, that would be one way of contracting the disease.”…

“Wherever the kid fell, they circle it and tell people to stay away from it, because that spot is a bad spot,”…

While these beliefs seem outlandish, the idea that epilepsy is caused by demonic possession is still common among many Western churches.

Here’s a video of a pastor of a revival church casting out epilepsy demons in Germany. This is an account of how TDS Ministries cured a young mother of a ‘spirit of epilepsy’ that was attacking her.

And if you’re still not convinced, this page has a testimony from the Bethel Church of how a blind man with epilepsy was not only cured of his seizures but also had his eyeballs grow back (suck on that Big Pharma!)

Needless to say, there’s plenty more where that came from, so we still have a way to go before even the most bizarre forms of stigma are defeated in the supposedly educated West.

Link to NYT piece on epilepsy beliefs in Sierra Leone.

Year two documentary on the Blue Brain project

The year two film of director Noah Hutton’s 10-year documentary-in-the-making on the progress of the ambitious Blue Brain Project is now online and well-worth watching.

The Blue Brain Project is often touted as aiming to ‘simulate the human brain’ but a more accurate description would probably be that it aims to create a simulation of cortical column circuits from the neuromolecular level up to the point where it’s as equally as complex as the human brain.

If the distinction isn’t clear imagine that you’re interested in how London works, so you decide to build a detailed computer simulation of suburban streets, but instead of aiming to replicate the geography of the genuine British city, you just make sure that it has as many roads as the capital itself.

Clearly, this is not an exact simulation of London, not least because the city is more than just suburban streets, but the complexity of the model would be incredibly useful in understanding the interaction between street level and city level activity at massive levels of complexity.

The same goes for neural simulation and the link between micro and macro levels of complexity is a major challenge for neuroscience. This is exactly what the Blue Brain Project aims to tackle.

However, as you can see in the film, project leader Henry Markham has the tendency to say that the project is about ‘understanding the brain’, which makes for good headlines, and takes nothing away from the impressiveness of the project, but is so broad that it doesn’t reflect the somewhat more neurobiological focus.

The project is, nonetheless, wonderful neuroscience and Noah Hutton’s film captures its progress during its second year.

Link to Noah Hutton’s ‘Blue Brain, Year Two’ film.

Bad riot neuroscience: cite the power

The Guardian Notes and Theories blog has a fantastic article on media science distortion by brain researchers whose study got falsely reported as showing a link between rioting and ‘low levels of a brain chemical’.

The actual study, which you can read online as a pdf, did not mention rioting and did not investigate it, but it got widely spun as giving an explanation for the recent looting in the UK based on the function of a neurotransmitter.

…we found that people who had lower levels of GABA in a part of their frontal lobe also reported higher “rash impulsivity”. People who score higher on rash impulsivity tend to act more rashly in response to strong emotions or urges. Our results tallied with recent genetic findings that linked GABA to alcoholism and drug abuse: disorders in which high rash impulsivity is a common feature. We wrote up our study for publication in a scientific journal and, as standard, we were encouraged by our university to issue a press release.

As the riots unfolded, news stories based on our research began appearing. On Tueday 9 August, a newswire story by the Press Association announced that “Brain chemical lack ‘spurs rioting'”, with ‘spurs rioting’ printed mischievously in quote marks, falsely implying these were our words. In a further creative leap, The Sun heralded a “Nose spray to stop drunks and brawls”, and that a “cure could be developed in the next ten years”.

The researchers reflect on how the media handles neuroscience and the hidden assumptions on the role of our brain in behaviour that pervade press reporting

In parts it’s a lament, in parts a media critique, and definitely worth reading in full.

Link to article ‘Riot control’.

The Psychologist on Milgram and the shock of the old

The August issue of The Psychologist is an open-access special edition on Stanley Milgram and his obedience studies that continue to cast a dark shadow over our understanding of human nature.

The issue has articles that look back on the legacy of his obedience studies, his treatment by historians and a personal view written by his widow, Alexandra Milgram, on the man himself.

But a particular highlight is a piece on his pioneering and almost cinematic use of film in his appropriately dramatic studies:

…in the popular imagination, Obedience and the ‘obedience to authority’ trials have become conflated and are now one and the same, despite the fact that the film only provides substantial documentation of one condition out of more than 20 that were investigated. Milgram’s documentaries and thoughtful writings on film, television and photography point to the value of narrative and audio-visual methods of research. The Obedience footage, however, does not support his claim that people ‘mindlessly follow authority’. On the contrary, it provides detailed audio-visual evidence that people experience considerable strain and anguish in following orders that conflict with their own consciences.

All the articles are free to read as is the rest of the issue. Enjoy.

Link to August edition of The Psychologist.

Declaration of interest: I’m an unpaid associate editor and occasional columnist for The Psychologist. The editor has not yet needed to use electric shocks on me.

Zombie brain-eating sex kitten

Bogotá comes up with a smackdown in the Colombia brain graffiti stakes with a zombie brain-eating sex kitten found on a car park wall near Avenida Calle 63 con Carrera 17 this morning.


Medellín, represent!

UPDATE: A bit of Google Fu turns up the blog of the graffiti artist Saint Cat with some amazing pieces scattered around Bogotá and the occasional featured zombie brain.

Strong piano at high fruitiness

A wonderful graph which shows how strongly the sounds of the piano, strings, woodwind and brass instruments are associated with fruity smells, across smells of low, medium and high fruitiness.

From a recent study entitled ‘A Fruity Note: Crossmodal associations between odors and musical notes’.

The study also tests how strongly these instruments are associated with acrid, floral and spicy scents, in case you needed to know.

Link to abstract / DOI entry of study.