Goodbye Colombia, for now

A few days ago I moved back to the UK after spending three years working in beautiful Colombia.

I had the pleasure of learning from some fantastic colleagues and managed to find myself working across the country from the Amazon to the Andes.

As a small and inevitably inadequate token of my appreciation I’d like to thank my colleagues in Médecins Sans Frontières from across Colombia, colleagues from the Hospital Universitario San Vicente de Paúl and the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellín, as well as the many other fantastic mental health professionals who helped me along the way and tolerated my enthusiastic but ‘freestyle’ Spanish.

I arrived in Bogotá to find Alonso, a particle physicist, had organised ‘neurobeers’ which were both enormously good fun and full of fantastic folks. Much appreciated.

And finally, thank you to Shakira (who can now contact me at my British address).

Neurotoxic e-waste recycling

The Lancet has an extensive news piece on how the recycling of old electronics in developing countries may be a serious neurological risk owing to the high levels of neurotoxic chemicals in modern electronics.

“The recycling of e-waste is big business in developing countries”, explains Javier Carod-Artal (Virgen de la Luz Hospital, Cuenca, Spain). “But many people are working without any kind of protection—most aren’t even aware of the potential risks. It’s a serious health threat.”

Carod-Artal explains that in its destination countries, e-waste is traded to individuals who recycle it in small workshops and sometimes even in their houses, locations in which ventilation is poor and little thought is given to the control of environmental contamination.

These individuals are exposed to many neurotoxicants during the extraction process. Lead, for example, has a low melting point, meaning that it evaporates quickly and can be inhaled quite easily when burning e-waste.

Many studies have shown that exposure to lead can adversely affect brain development, but electronic devices contain many more potential toxicants. For example, among as many as 40 different elements, a mobile phone can contain known neurotoxicants such as arsenic, cadmium, and chromium.

As many modern electronics also rely on conflict minerals, that is, essential elements minded from areas controlled by illegal armed groups, we can safely say that electronics manufacture is not the most person friendly practice in the world.

If you want more details you can read the entire Lancet article for free online although, annoyingly, you have to create an account with their website first.

Link to Lancet piece on neurotoxic e-waste.

Buried words

I’ve just found a fantastic video that explains the speech-impairing disorder aphasia to children of all ages.

Its called ‘The Treasure Hunt’ and was created by speech pathologist Shiree Heath and it went on to win first place in the Society for Neuroscience’s video competition.

The video combines a cartoon treasure hunt with recordings of a real-life aphasia patient who seems to be affected by a type of anomic aphasia where affected people have trouble with saying names of objects or items.

It’s worth noting that this is only one of many types of speech-affecting aphasias that are possible after brain damage, although this is perhaps the one that has been most delightfully described so far.

Link to The Treasure Hunt video (via @mocost)

A thread of hope from a shooting

No-one knows why Steven Kazmierczak snapped. When he kicked his way into a packed lecture hall in Northern Illinois University, shooting dead five students and injuring 21 more, those who knew him expressed surprise that he was capable of such brutal violence.

He killed himself at the end of the spree, meaning his motives remain unknown, but the legacy of this tragic event may be more than just the actions of a lone unfathomable killer.

Because when Kazmierczak attacked, a team of psychologists and neuroscientists had already assessed a large group of students who had been recruited as non-affected participants for a study on the effects of victimisation, giving the researchers an unwanted opportunity to better understand how sudden trauma affects the innocent.

Since the 1980s we have recognised a trauma-specific mental disorder. Its name, ‘post-traumatic stress disorder,’ seems to suggest that trauma alone causes the condition but we have known for years that genetics play a large part in determining who does and who doesn’t develop PTSD.

Not everyone who experiences a violent attack, disaster or sexual assault will develop PTSD. In fact, the single most common outcome after tragedy is not mental illness, but recovery. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t feel shaken up or distressed after such events but most people can return to their everyday lives, perhaps changed, but unimpaired.

What we still don’t know is how people who recover are different. Why is it that some individuals develop the disorder following trauma while others appear to be relatively resilient?

We’ve known since studies on Vietnam veterans that genetics accounts for up to 30% of the difference in PTSD symptoms but researchers have been keen to find to specific genes that confer the biggest vulnerability.

Normally these types of studies look at people with and without PTSD and compare the presence of specific genes known to be linked to brain function, to see if they appear more in one group than another. Although helpful, one problem with these sorts of studies is that it is difficult to say whether the genes might directly contribute to the condition or to a general difficulty with mood or behaviour.

In scientific terms, the reason this can be a problem is because people who are already, for example, low in mood or impulsive, are on average more likely to be victimised, attacked or abused. This means it’s difficult to know exactly which genes are most important for explaining the reaction to trauma, rather than the chance of being victimised.

Psychologist Kristina Mercer was leading a study on trauma before the shooting occurred. She had been interviewing female students about their life histories and experience of trauma at Northern Illinois University, originally planning to re-interview the students over time to see which characteristics made them more likely to experience sexual assault.

Clearly motivated to make sure that something more than grief and pain would come from the event, she switched focus to better understand what made some people more likely to develop PTSD after the shooting.

The team re-interviewed the participants in the weeks following the tragedy, assessing their exposure to the violence, any PTSD symptoms present and their level of support from friends and family. A similar interview was conducted 8 to 12 months later and at the end of the study, the researchers took saliva samples to look at the DNA of each participant.

As PTSD is largely a disorder of anxiety accompanied by an intrusive reexperiencing of the event that doesn’t fade with time, the team focused on genes for the serotonin transporter system or SERT.

Serotonin is one of the brain’s neurotransmitters that provide chemical signalling between brain cells. The serotonin transporter system is responsible for removing the used serotonin from the synaptic cleft, the signalling space between the neurons, and putting it back in place, ready to be used again.

This is important because if not removed from the synaptic cleft, the serotonin will keep on signalling. In other words, the efficiency of the serotonin transport system in cleaning-up stray neurotransmitter determines the strength of the signal as much as the original message.

We know that many of the key circuits involved in anxiety are reliant on the serotonin neurotransmitter, so the research team suspected that people with genes differing in how they control transport system could be differently susceptible to anxiety and, perhaps, trauma.

In line with their thinking, the results showed a similar picture. A transport gene called rs25531 was identified as directly linked to the chance of developing PTSD after the shooting. Interestingly, a commonly mentioned serotonin gene, 5-HTTLPR, was only linked to PTSD risk when it was also present with rs25531, suggesting the importance of looking at genetic interactions and not just single genes.

Because of nature of the shootings – a lone gunman who randomly attacked anyone in range – the results are more directly tied to reaction to trauma, rather than a possible vulnerability to being victimised, meaning this is one of the few studies that gives us an unambiguous insight into the post-trauma process.

Now it’s common at this point to say that a discovery of specific genes raising the risk of mental illness should lead to a better treatment for trauma, but this is usually nothing more than a hopeful twist on the scientific details, and this case is no different.

The results suggest no direct treatment and no immediate cure because mind, brain and trauma are too complex for simple solutions.

But the study is no less important. It’s still an essential part of our understanding and provides an essential thread in a tapestry of knowledge.

And fittingly, it shows that even from the shadow of tragedy, light emerges.

Link to locked scientific article.
pdf of full text.

Post-sex psychology

Slate has an article covering the growing research on post-sex behaviour – what we do after we’ve got it on and what it might mean.

To be honest, I had no idea that anyone was studying what people do after sex but it sounds like the science is well underway.

Counter to popular opinion, a dated study, and the great wisdom of many lady mags, researchers have not found that men fall asleep faster than women after sex. In fact, according to a recent study [pdf] of heterosexual pairings by Kruger and Hughes, a woman is just as likely as a man to be out first. But — and here’s the interesting part — regardless of gender, the partner who stayed awake longer reported that they weren’t getting enough post-sex hugging, kissing or talking – what evolutionary psychologists call “pair bonding” activities…

And what about the other activities people move on to after sex, like hanging out in bed, ordering Chinese food, or smoking a cigarette? Earlier in 2011 Kruger and Hughes published a report in the Journal of Sex Research, considering a wider range of after-sex impulses. In that case they found that our post-coital behaviors – again considering only heterosexual sex – tend to split along gender lines. Eating, fixing yourself a drink, smoking and asking your partner for favors – all activities that sound pretty good to me – were more likely to be taken on by the men. The women, in this case, placed greater importance on behaviors related to intimacy, like cuddling and “professing their love.”

From reading the article though it’s clearly a fascinating area, even if the research seems only to have looked at heterosexual sex so far.

Apparently though, my preferred behaviour, apologising, seems barely to feature at all.

Link to ‘After the Climax’ from Salon (via @QMUPsychology)

A mental space filled with flowers

An entire psychiatric hospital has been filled with flowers before demolition as part of a beautiful art installation to remember a place “rich with a history of both hope and sadness.”

Art website Colossal has amazing pictures of the sublime artwork.

In 2003 a building housing the Massachusetts Mental Health Center (MMHC) was slated for demolition to make way for updated facilities. The closure was a time for reflection and remembrance as the MMHC had been in operation for over 9 decades and had touched countless thousands of patients and employees alike, and the pending demolition presented a unique problem. How does one memorialize a building impossibly rich with a history of both hope and sadness, and do it in a way that reflects not only the past but also the future? And could this memorial be open to the public, not as a speech, or series of informational plaques, but as an experience worthy of they building’s unique story?

To answer that question artist Anna Schuleit was commissioned to do the impossible. After an initial tour of the facility she was struck not with what she saw but with what she didn’t see: the presence of life and color. While historically a place of healing, the drab interior, worn hallways, and dull paint needed a respectful infusion of hope. With a limited budget and only three months of planning Schuleit and an enormous team of volunteers executed a massive public art installation called Bloom. The concept was simple but absolutely immense in scale. Nearly 28,000 potted flowers would fill almost every square foot of the MMHC including corridors, stairwells, offices and even a swimming pool, all of it brought to life with a sea of blooms.

A beautiful and touching piece.

Link to photos from Colossal (via @sarcastic_f)
Link to artist’s pages on the project.

Reminder: revelatory experiences conference

A final reminder about the revelatory experience conference where the psychology, neuroscience and anthropology of visionary experiences will be discussed in London on March 23rd.

Rather than debating whether such experiences are ‘true’ or not, it’s more aimed at discussing how well our current tools of science, medicine and interpretation help us make sense of the wide variety of revelatory experiences in the world.

Link to conference details.