Rita Levi-Montalcini has left the building

Nobel-prize winning neuroscientist Rita Levi-Montalcini has passed away at the age of 103, just a few months after publishing her last scientific study.

She won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of nerve growth factor along with her colleague Stanley Cohen and continued worked well past the time when most people would have retired.

Her most recent scientific study was published earlier this year, at the age of 102, and extended the work for which she won the Nobel.

If you want more background on a fantastic neuroscientist and her ground-breaking work, Nature published a profile in 2009, on her 100th birthday.

Link to obituary in the New York Times.
Link to Nature profile.

In other news: behind the video game scare

The research on the psychological impact of video games tells quite a different story from the stories we get from interest groups and the media. I look at what we know in an article for The Observer.

Perhaps the two biggest concerns are that video games are ‘damaging the brain’ and that violent video games are causing, well, violence.

It’s first worth noting that talking about the impact of ‘video games’ as a whole is about a pointless as talking about the health effects of ‘sports’ as a whole.

However, we do know that certain sorts of video games have specific effects. For example, we have increasing evidence that ‘action video games’ lead to significant improvements in certain mental skills.

The number of aliens you kill may directly contribute to an improvement in your brain. This may not sound like a typical scientific discovery, but it has come from some of the world’s finest neuroscience laboratories. In fact, it is the genuine outcome of studies on how action video games can improve your attention, mental control and visual skills. We’re talking here about fast-moving titles such as Halo, Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, which demand quick reflexes and instant decision-making. They’re often portrayed as the most trashy, vapid and empty-headed forms of digital entertainment, but it looks as if they may be particularly good at sharpening your mental skills.

As the article makes clear, this has been tested quite rigorously, including with randomised controlled trials.

With regard to violence, violent video games have been found to cause small, reliable but temporary increases in aggressive thoughts and behaviour in the lab – as have other forms of violent media, including films and the news.

But in terms of real-world violence “delinquent peers, depression and an abusive family environment account for actual violent incidents, while exposure to media violence seems to have only a minor and usually insignificant effect.”

Nevertheless, the video game utopians also have reason to think again. There are some negative effects of spending too much time in front of the console, which are also tackled in the article.

Link to Observer article on the science of how gaming affects us.

A depressing financial justification

Image from Wikipedia user LuciusCommons. Click for source.One of the most controversial changes to the recently finalised DSM-5 diagnostic manual was the removal of the ‘bereavement exclusion’ from the diagnosis of depression – meaning that someone could be diagnosed as depressed even if they’ve just lost a loved on

The Washington Post has been investigating the financial ties of those on the committee and, yes, you guessed it:

Eight of 11 members of the APA committee that spearheaded the change reported financial connections to pharmaceutical companies — either receiving speaking fees, consultant pay, research grants or holding stock, according to the disclosures filed with the association. Six of the 11 panelists reported financial ties during the time that the committee met, and two more reported financial ties in the five years leading up to the committee assignment, according to APA records.

A key adviser to the committee — he wrote the scientific justification for the change — was the lead author of the 2001 study on Wellbutrin, sponsored by GlaxoWellcome, showing that its antidepressant Wellbutrin could be used to treat bereavement…

The association also appointed an oversight panel that declared that the recommendations had been free of bias, but most of the members of the “independent review panel” had previous financial ties to the industry.

Actually, it’s kind of sad that this isn’t a surprise, but perhaps more worrying is the fact that the chairman of the mood disorders panel that made the change, Jan Fawcett, doesn’t seem to understand bias.

“I don’t think these connections create any bias at all,” Fawcett said. “People can say we were biased. But it assumes we have no intelligence of our own.

Fawcett is assuming that bias means ‘dishonesty’ where people deliberately make choices for their own advantage against what they know to be a better course of action, or ‘sloppiness’ where people don’t fully think through the issue.

But bias, as you can find out from picking up any social psychology paper from the past century, is where incentives change our behaviour usually without us having insight into the presence or effect of the influencer.

This is exemplified in the work of Dan Ariely or the work that won Daniel Kahneman the Nobel Prize.

So when someone says, “I don’t think these connections create any bias” it means – ‘I’m not willing to think about the bias that these connections create’ which is a red flag that they won’t be recognised or addressed.

We’re all susceptible to them. The trick is to recognise they exist and put measures in place to account for them.

Sadly, it doesn’t look like this has happened with the DSM-5.

Link to WashPost article on the new depression diagnosis and industry ties.

The stem cell scammers

Image from Wikipedia. Click fo source.Ukraine has become a world centre for untested stem cell treatments where patients can fly in and have embryonic stem cells implanted in their brain to supposedly treat everything from Alzheimer’s disease to autism.

These treatments are entirely unproven and are illegal in most of the world but are available for anyone wanting to pay the price.

Embryonic stem cells are a type of cell that can turn into any type of tissue in the body and can keep on dividing, in principle, endlessly.

They are named ’embryonic’ because these cells are particularly important, as you can imagine, in the development of the human embryo which needs to grow and differentiate into a rapidly developing complex organism.

A lot of the cutting-edge science is now focussing on ‘reprogrammed stem cells’ – which are adult cells genetically altered to revert to stem cells.

But stem cells used in experimental treatments are often taken from genuine human embryos, usually sourced from IVF fertility treatments.

Here, the egg is fertilised with the sperm in the lab (hence ‘test tube baby’) and the nascent embryo is implanted into the woman’s body after a few days – typically, when it has between 10 and 100 cells and is invisible to the human eye.

However, only the most viable embryos are implanted so there are often some left over. Most mainstream stem cell treatment research uses these as a source of stem cells (although science is increasingly turning to ‘reprogrammed stem cells’ as they’re potentially easier to produce and less controversial).

It’s worth saying that stem cell treatments in themselves are not necessarily bad thing but they are currently at the research stage and so are only usually given as part of scientific programmes to test their safety and usefulness.

The commercial treatments available in the Ukraine are notable for two reasons.

The first is that they typically use stem cells from aborted fetuses “of 5–8 weeks of gestation”.

The second is that they are either entirely untested or have never been confirmed as either safe not effective.

After a brief search it seems there are many commercial companies who offer stem cell therapies that would be illegal in most other countries.

This is quite shocking in itself, but perhaps the most disturbing practice is implanting fetal stem cells into the brains of children with autism.

Brain surgery is dangerous, implanting biological material from other sources even more so, and bear in mind we are talking about treatments that have never been scientifically tested.

This is from the website of one of the biggest Ukrainian stem cell clinics that advertises this ‘service’ and justifies it with lot of scientific bunk:

Fetal stem cells (FSC) that we use in autism treatment positively affect all body organs and systems, and, first of all, this treatment targets the brain. In autism, areas of brain regulating memory, concentration, attention, speech etc. are damaged. Stem cell treatment improves blood and oxygen flow to the brain (improved perfusion), replaces damaged neurons and stimulates formation of the new arteries. After some time, FSC acquire properties of cells surrounding them and multiply into these cells, which results in white and gray matter restoration and, consequently, in subsidence of neurologic symptoms and improved intellectual capacity.

The shady ‘stem cell therapy’ industry is expanding across the world and is increasingly targeting behavioural and psychological disorders.

Companies are advertising ‘treatments’ for, among other things, schizophrenia, depression, addiction and suicidal thinking.

In one particularly worrying testimony video and advert a father apparently describes how ‘stem cell therapy’ treated his son’s “childhood depressive disorder” although the symptoms and outcomes seem to be more about him being a well behaved kid.

Stem cells for neurological conditions are still an experimental treatment. They may yet be one of the greatest medical advances of the 21st century but they don’t work by being added to the brain like some sort of neurological band aid.

Unfortunately, these unproven treatments are already a massive industry and their promise is being hijacked by quacks to exploit the desperate.

Darwin’s asylum

Shrewsbury School is one of the oldest public schools in England and it makes much of being the institution that schooled Charles Darwin and introduced him to science.

While the famous naturalist was certainly a pupil there he probably never set foot inside the building that the famous school now occupies because during Darwin’s time the building was Kingsland Lunatic Asylum.


As the historian L.D. Smith noted, the Kingsland Asylum was quite unique in its day. Rather than create a separate institution for ‘pauper lunatics’ – as was common at the time – the authorities in the county of Shropshire had decided to license the Shrewsbury ‘House of Industry’ as a private asylum at the same time.

The workhouse and asylum was opened in 1784 to accommodate paupers and cases of “lunacy”, “sickness” and “single women in a state of pregnancy”.

By 1844 the Kingsland Asylum contained nearly 90 residents who lived under a tough regime:

Payment of one-sixth part of their week’s work is made to all except in cases of misconduct, and punishments are given to all who profanely curse or swear, who appear to be in liquor, who are refractory or disobedient to the reasonable orders of the steward or matrons, who pretend sickness, make excuse to avoid working, destroy or spoil material or implements, or are guilty of lewd, immoral or disorderly behaviour.

But it’s not wholly inappropriate that Darwin has become posthumously linked to an asylum building as he had a powerful, if not fraught, relationship with psychiatry and mental illness.

Darwin reportedly showed ‘a personal interest in the plight of the mentally ill and an astute empathy for psychiatric patients’ but founded a view of madness as a form of degeneration that was enthusiastically adopted by eugenicists.

Thankfully, this strain of Darwinian influence has long since died, but both evolution and genetics remain important foundations of modern cognitive science although the role of evolutionary psychology in explaining mental illness remains controversial.

Curiously, Darwin himself also suffered from poor health for most of his life that has never been fully explained but clearly had many aspects that would be diagnosed as psychiatric disorders today.

So I quite like the fact that Darwin’s picture is proudly displayed inside an old asylum. It’s an ambiguous tribute and reminds us of his own ambivalent relationship with the unsettled mind.

BBC Column: when you want what you don’t like

My BBC Future column from Tuesday. The original is here. It’s a Christmas theme folks, but hopefully I cover an interesting research area too: Berridge, Robinson and colleagues’ work on the wanting/liking distinction.

As the holiday season approaches, Tom Stafford looks at festive overindulgence, and explains how our minds tell us we want something even if we may not like it.

Ah, Christmas, the season of peace, goodwill and overindulgence. If this year is like others, I’ll probably be taking up residence on the couch after a big lunch, continuing to munch my way through packets of unhealthy snacks, and promising myself that I’ll live a more virtuous life once the New Year begins.

It was on one such occasion that I had an epiphany in the psychology of everyday life. I’d just finished the last crisp of a large packet, and the thought occurred to me that I don’t actually like crisps that much. But there I was, covered in crumbs and post-binge guilt, saturated fats coursing through my body looking for nice arteries to settle down on. In an effort to distract myself from the urge to reach for another packet, I started to think about the peculiar psychology of the situation.

Every bite seemed essential, but in a way that seem to suggest I was craving them rather than liking them. Fortunately for my confusion (and my arteries), there’s some solid neuroscience to explain how we can want something we don’t like.

Normally wanting and liking are tightly bound together. We want things we like and we like the things we want. But experiments by the University of Michigan’s Kent Berridge and colleagues show that this isn’t always the case. Wanting and liking are based on separate brain circuits and can be controlled independently.

To demonstrate this, Berridge used a method called “taste reactivity“, in effect, recording the faces pulled when animals are given different kinds of food. Give an adult human something sweet and they’ll lick their lips. This might sound obvious, but when you take it to the next level in terms of detail and rigour you start to get a powerful system for telling how much an animal likes a particular type of food. Taste reactivity involves defining the reactions precisely – for example, lip-licking would be defined as “a mild rhythmic smacking, slight protrusions of the tongue, a relaxed expression accompanied sometimes by a slight upturn of the corners of the mouth” – and then looking for this same expression in other species. A baby human can’t tell you they like the taste like an adult can, but you can see the same expression. A chimpanzee will do the same with a sweet taste. A rat won’t do exactly the same thing, but they do something similar. By carefully observing and coding the facial expressions that accompany nice and nasty tastes, you can tell what an animal is enjoying and what they aren’t.

Pleasure principles


This method is a breakthrough because it gives us another way of looking at how non-human species feel about things. Most animal psychology uses overt actions – things like pressing levers – as measures. So, for example, if you want to see how a reward affects a rat, you put it in a box with a lever and give it food each time it presses the level. Sure enough, the rat will learn to press the lever once it learns that this produces food. Taste reactivity creates an additional measure, allowing us insight into how much the animal enjoys the food, as well as what it makes it want to do.

From this, the neuroscientists have been able to show that wanting and liking are governed by separate circuits in the brain. The liking system is based in the subcortex, that part of our brain that is most similar to other species. Electrical stimulation here, in an area called the nucleus accumbans, is enough to cause pleasure. Sadly, you need brain surgery and implanted electrodes to experience this. But another way you can stimulate this bit of the brain is via the opioid chemical system, which is the brain messenger system directly affected by drugs like heroin. Like brain surgery, this is also NOT recommended.

Wanting happens in nearby, but distinct, circuits. These are more widely spread around the subcortex than the liking circuits, and use a different chemical messenger system, one based around a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Surprisingly, it is this circuit rather than the one for liking which seems to play a primary role in addiction. For addicts a key aspect of their condition is the way in which people, situations and things associated with drug taking become reminders of the drug that are impossible to ignore. Berridge has hypothesised that this is due to a drug’s direct effects on the wanting system. For addicts any reminder of drug taking triggers a neural cascade, which culminates in feelings of desire, but crucially, without needing any actual enjoyment of the drug to occur.

The reason wanting and liking circuits are so near each other is that they normally work closely together, ensuring you want what you like. But in addiction, the theory goes, the circuits can become uncoupled, so that you get extreme wanting without a corresponding increase in pleasure. Matching this, addicts are notable for enjoying the thing they are addicted to less than non-addicts. This is the opposite of most activities, where people who do the most are also the ones who enjoy it the most. (Most activities except another Christmas tradition, watching television, where you see the same pattern as with drug addictions – people who watch the most enjoy it the least).

So now you know what do when you find yourself chomping your way through yet another packet of crisps over the holiday period. Watch your face and see if you are licking your lips. If you are, perhaps your liking circuits are fully engaged and you’ll be happy with what you’ve eaten when you’re finished. If there’s no lip-licking then perhaps your wanting circuits are in control and you need to exercise some self-restraint. Perhaps after the next mouthful, though.

A very psychological chocolate

A familiar sight amid the Christmas supermarket shelves is the box of Black Magic chocolates. It’s a classic product that’s been familiar to British shoppers since the 1930s but less well known is the fact that it was entirely designed by psychologists.

The chocolates were produced by Rowntree’s who were a pioneer in using empirical psychology to design products (rather than a Freudian approached preferred by American marketers like Edward Bernays).

The idea was to design an assortment of chocolates that would be tailored to be the ideal off-the-shelf romantic gift. This is from an article (pdf) on the history of Rowntree’s marketing:

The National Institute of Industrial Psychology interviewed 7,000 people over six months on their conception of the perfect chocolate assortment. In another survey, 3,000 preferences for hard, soft, and nut centres exactly determined the proportions of chocolate types in the assortment.

Retailers were consulted and their recommendations on margins and price maintenance were followed carefully. Shopkeepers, moreover, supplied information on buying behavior, and it was discovered that most assortments were purchased by men for women and that they were influenced entirely by value rather than fancy boxes. The now familiar, simple black-and-white box was distinctive and chosen from fifty similar designs.

The marketing was then focussed not on the qualities of the product, but on its potential use in developing relationships.

While this is common practice now, it was quite revolutionary at the time, although you can see from the archive of Black Magic adverts that the approach seems painfully clunky from a modern perspective.

The use of psychologists was part of Rowntree’s pioneering use of psychology throughout its whole business, both including product design and human resources and was also one of the most important moments in the launch of professional psychology in the UK – something covered by a 2001 article (pdf) from The Psychologist.

So while Black Magic chocolates now seem just like a common supermarket item, they’re actually an important part of psychology history.