2013-12-20 Spike activity

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

The New York Times reports that information overlords Google acquire creature-inspired military robot outfit Boston Dynamics. Honestly. It’s like humanity is attached to a big angry dog and someone keeps yanking the chain.

There’s an excellent and extensive MIT Tech Review piece on the development of neuromorphic chips.

Over 60% of people diagnosed with depression do not actually meet the diagnostic criteria, according to an American study covered in The Atlantic.

The New York Times has an interesting piece on how peak violence is in your first few years of life and how persistent adult violence may be a ‘missing dropoff’ from these period.

Long neglected, severe cases of autism get some attention. Excellent piece from the Simons Foundation.

Nature reports that narcolepsy is all but confirmed as an auto-immune disease. Big news.

Hi Kids, I’m Neuro The Clown! Genius comic strip from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

Sifting The Evidence takes a careful look at dubious claims that aspirin could treat aggression.

There’s an interesting piece over at Nautilus on how your brain twists together emotion and place.

Neurocritic covers a curious case study: When Waking Up Becomes the Nightmare: Hypnopompic Hallucinatory Pain.

Year Four of the Blue Brain documentary

Film-maker Noah Hutton has just released the ‘Year Four’ film of the decade-long series of films about Henry Markram’s massive Blue Brain neuroscience project.

It’s been an interesting year for Markram’s project with additional billion euro funding won to extend and expand on earlier efforts and the USA’s BRAIN Initiative having also made it’s well-funded but currently direction-less debut.

Hutton also tackles Markram on the ‘we’re going to simulate the brain in 10 years’ nonsense he relied on earlier in the project’s PR push although, his answer, it must be said, is somewhat evasive.

Although more of an update on the politics of Big Neuroscience than a piece about new developments in the science of the brain, the latest installation of the Blue Brain documentary series captures how 2013 will define how we make sense of the brain for years to come.

Link to ‘Bluebrain: Year Four’ on Vimeo.
Link to the Bluebrain Film website.

Is school performance less heritable in the USA?

CC licensed photo by flickr user Pollbarba. Click for source.A recent twin study looked at educational achievement in the UK and found that genetic factors contribute more than half to the difference in how students perform in their age 16 exams. But this may not apply to other countries.

Twin studies look at the balance between environmental and genetic factors for a given population and a given environment.

They are based on comparing identical and non-identical twins. Identical twins share 100% of their DNA, non-identical twins 50%. They also share a common environment (for example, the family home) and some unique experiences.

By knowing that differences in what you’re measuring in identical twins is likely to be ‘twice as genetic’ or ‘twice as heritable’ in non-identical twins you can work out the likely effect of environment using something called the ACE model.

This relies on various assumptions, for example, that identical twins and non-identical twins will not systematically attract different sorts of experiences, which are not watertight. But as a broad estimate, twin studies work out.

Here’s what the latest study concluded:

In a national twin sample of 11,117 16-year-olds, heritability was substantial for overall GCSE performance for compulsory core subjects (58%) as well as for each of them individually: English (52%), mathematics (55%) and science (58%). In contrast, the overall effects of shared environment, which includes all family and school influences shared by members of twin pairs growing up in the same family and attending the same school, accounts for about 36% of the variance of mean GCSE scores. The significance of these findings is that individual differences in educational achievement at the end of compulsory education are not primarily an index of the quality of teachers or schools: much more of the variance of GCSE scores can be attributed to genetics than to school or family environment.

In other words, the study concluded that over half of the difference in exam results was down to genetic factors.

The most important thing to consider, however, is how well the conclusions apply outside the population and environment being tested.

Because the results give an estimate of the balance between environment and genetic heritability that contribute to the final outcome, the more fixed the environment, the more any differences will be due to genetics and vice versa.

If that’s a bit difficult to get your head round try this example: ask yourself – is difference in height mostly due to genetics or the environment? Most people say genetics – tall parents tend to have tall offspring – but that only applies where everybody has adequate nutrition (i.e. the environmental contribution is fixed to maximum benefit).

In situations where malnutrition is a problem, difference in height is mostly explained by the environment. People who have adequate nutrition during childhood are taller than people who suffered malnutrition. In this situation, genetic factors are a minor player in terms of explaining height differences.

So let’s go back to our education example and think about how genetic and environmental factors balance out.

One of the interesting things about the UK is that it has a National Curriculum where schools have to teach set subjects in a set way.

In other words, the government has fixed part of the environment meaning that differences in exam performance in the UK are that bit more likely to be due to genetic heritability than places where there is no set education programme.

In fact, the same research group speculated in 2007 in a research monograph (pdf, p116) in a similar analysis, that school performance would be less genetically heritable in the USA, because the school environment is more variable.

The U.K. National Curriculum provides similar curricula to all students, thus diminishing a potentially important source of environmental variation across schools, to the extent that the curriculum actually provides a potent source of environmental variation.

In contrast, the educational system in the United States is one of the most decentralized national systems in the world. To the extent that these differences in educational policy affect children’s academic performance, we would expect greater heritability and lower shared environment in the United Kingdom than in the United States.

In other words, all other things being equal, greater equality in educational opportunity should lead to greater heritability.

School performance may be less influenced by genetic heritability in the USA because the educational environment is more variable and therefore accounts for more difference.

Whereas in the UK, the educational environment is more fixed so a greater proportion of the difference in performance is down to genetic heritability.

It’s worth noting that this hasn’t, to my knowledge, been confirmed yet, but it’s a reasonable assumption and demonstrates exactly the question we need to bear in mind when considering studies that estimate heritability – for whom and in what environment?

Link to twin study on school performance in PLOS One.
pdf of research monograph on learning and genetics.

The best graphic and gratuitious displays

Forget your end of year run-downs and best of 2013 photo specials, it doesn’t get much better than this: ‘The 15 Best Behavioural Science Graphs of 2010-13’ from the Stirling Behavioural Science Blog.

As to be expected, some are a little better than others (well, Rolling Stone chose a Miley Cyrus video as one of their best of 2013, so, you know, no-one’s perfect) but there are still plenty of classics.

This one, from a study on parole rulings by judges based on the order of cases and when food breaks occur is particularly eye-opening.

This paper examined 1,112 judicial rulings over a 10 month period by eight judges in Israel. These judges presided over 2 parole boards for four major prisons, processing around 40% of all parole requests in the country. They considered 14-35 cases per day for an average of six minutes and they took two daily food breaks (a late morning snack and lunch), dividing the day into three sessions.

The graph looks at the proportion of rulings in favor of parole by ordinal position (so 1st case of the day, then 2nd, then 3rd, etc). The circled points are the first decision in each of the three decision sessions, the tick marks on the x-axis denote every third case and the dotted line denotes a food break. The probability of the judges granting parole falls steadily from around 65% to nearly zero just before the break, before jumping back up again after they return to work.

Moral of the story: don’t get banged up, make sure your judge has been recently fed, or bring snacks to court.

Anyway, plenty more fascinating behavioural science graphs to check out and no Miley Cyrus. At least, until she jumps on that bandwagon.

Link to ‘The 15 Best Behavioural Science Graphs of 2010-13’

A disorder of marketing

Photo by Flickr user lance robotson.  Click for source.The New York Times has an important article on how Attention Deficit Disorder, often known as ADHD, has been ‘marketed’ alongside sales of stimulant medication to the point where leading ADHD researchers are becoming alarmed at the scale of diagnosis and drug treatment.

It’s worth noting that although the article focuses on ADHD, it is really a case study in how psychiatric drug marketing often works.

This is the typical pattern: a disorder is defined and a reliable diagnosis is created. A medication is tested and found to be effective – although studies which show negative effects might never be published.

It is worth highlighting that the ‘gold standard’ diagnosis usually describes a set of symptoms that are genuinely linked to significant distress or disability.

Then, marketing money aims to ‘raise awareness’ of the condition to both doctors and the public. This may be through explicit drug company adverts, by sponsoring medical training that promotes a particular drug, or by heavily funding select patient advocacy groups that campaign for wider diagnosis and drug treatment.

This implicitly encourages diagnosis to be made away from the ‘gold standard’ assessment – which often involves an expensive and time-consuming structured assessment by specialists.

This means that much of the diagnosis and prescribing happens by local doctors and is often prompted by patients turning up with newspaper articles, adverts, or the results of supposedly non-diagnostic diagnostic quizzes in their hands. There are many more marketing tricks of the trade which the article goes through in detail.

As the initial market begins to become saturated, drug companies will often aim to ‘expand’ into other areas by sponsoring studies into the same condition in another age group and treating the condition as an ‘add on’ to another disorder – each of which allows them to officially market the drug for these conditions.

However, fines for illegally marketing drugs for non-approved conditions are now commonplace are many think that these are just considered as calculated financial risks by pharmaceutical companies.

The New York Times is particularly important because it tracks the entire web of marketing activity – that aside from the traditional medical slant – also includes pop stars, material for kids, TV presenters, websites and bloggers.

It is a eye-opening guide to the burgeoning world of ADHD promotion but is really just a case study of how psychiatric drug marketing works. By the way, don’t miss the video that analyses the marketing material.

Essential stuff.

Link to NYT article ‘The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder’

2013-12-13 Spike activity

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

Beware the enthusiasm for ‘neuroeducation’ says Steven Rose in Times Higher Education.

Lots of studies use oxytocin nasal sprays. You can buy it from websites. Neuroskeptic asks does it even reach the brain?

Time magazine finds a fascinating AI telemarketer bot that denies it’s a robot when questioned – with some great audio samples of the conversations.

The Tragedy of Common-Sense Morality. Interesting interview with psychologist of moral thinking Joshua Green in Slate.

Brain Watch takes a calm look at the most hyped concept in neuroscience: mirror neurons.

As is traditional the Christmas British Medical Journal has some wonderfully light-hearted science – including a medical review on the beneficial and harmful effects of laughter.

How much do we really know about sleep? asks The Telegraph.

Chemical adventurers: a potent laboratory neurotoxin is being sold as a legal high online. The Dose Makes The Poison has the news.

Not really into kickstarters but this looks cool: open-source Arduino-compatible 8-channel EEG platform.

Did Brain Scans Just Save a Convicted Murderer From the Death Penalty? Wired on a curious neurolaw development.

How the US military used lobotomies on World War II veterans – an excellent multimedia expose from the Wall Street Journal.

New Scientist takes a critical look at the ‘genetics more important than experience in school exam performance’ study that’s been making the headlines.

The Manifestation of Migraine in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Neurocritic on migraine and opera.

How sleep makes your mind more creative

It’s a tried and tested technique used by writers and poets, but can psychology explain why first moments after waking can be among our most imaginative?

It is 6.06am and I’m typing this in my pyjamas. I awoke at 6.04am, walked from the bedroom to the study, switched on my computer and got to work immediately. This is unusual behaviour for me. However, it’s a tried and tested technique for enhancing creativity, long used by writers, poets and others, including the inventor Benjamin Franklin. And psychology research appears to back this up, providing an explanation for why we might be at our most creative when our minds are still emerging from the realm of sleep.

The best evidence we have of our mental state when we’re asleep is that strange phenomenon called dreaming. Much remains unknown about dreams, but one thing that is certain is that they are weird. Also listening to other people’s dreams can be deadly boring. They go on and on about how they were on a train, but it wasn’t a train, it was a dinner party, and their brother was there, as well as a girl they haven’t spoken to since they were nine, and… yawn. To the dreamer this all seems very important and somehow connected. To the rest of us it sounds like nonsense, and tedious nonsense at that.

Yet these bizarre monologues do highlight an interesting aspect of the dream world: the creation of connections between things that didn’t seem connected before. When you think about it, this isn’t too unlike a description of what creative people do in their work – connecting ideas and concepts that nobody thought to connect before in a way that appears to make sense.

No wonder some people value the immediate, post-sleep, dreamlike mental state – known as sleep inertia or the hypnopompic state – so highly. It allows them to infuse their waking, directed thoughts with a dusting of dreamworld magic. Later in the day, waking consciousness assumes complete control, which is a good thing as it allows us to go about our day evaluating situations, making plans, pursuing goals and dealing rationally with the world. Life would be challenging indeed if we were constantly hallucinating, believing the impossible or losing sense of what we were doing like we do when we’re dreaming. But perhaps the rational grip of daytime consciousness can at times be too strong, especially if your work could benefit from the feckless, distractible, inconsistent, manic, but sometimes inspired nature of its rebellious sleepy twin.

Scientific methods – by necessity methodical and precise – might not seem the best of tools for investigating sleep consciousness. Yet in 2007 Matthew Walker, now of the University of California at Berkeley, and colleagues carried out a study that helps illustrate the power of sleep to foster unusual connections, or “remote associates” as psychologists call them.

Under the inference

Subjects were presented with pairs of six abstract patterns A, B, C, D, E and F. Through trial and error they were taught the basics of a hierarchy, which dictated they should select A over B, B over C, C over D, D over E, and E over F. The researchers called these the “premise pairs”. While participants learnt these during their training period, they were not explicitly taught that because A was better than B, and B better than C, that they should infer A to be better than C, for example. This hidden order implied relationships, described by Walker as “inference pairs”, were designed to mimic the remote associates that drive creativity.

Participants who were tested 20 minutes after training got 90% of premise pairs but only around 50% of inference pairs right – the same fraction you or I would get if we went into the task without any training and just guessed.

Those tested 12 hours after training again got 90% for the premise pairs, but 75% of inference pairs, showing the extra time had allowed the nature of the connections and hidden order to become clearer in their minds.

But the real success of the experiment was a contrast in the performances of one group trained in the morning and then re-tested 12 hours later in the evening, and another group trained in the evening and brought back for testing the following morning after having slept. Both did equally well in tests of the premise pairs. The researchers defined inferences that required understanding of two premise relationships as easy, and those that required three or more as hard. So, for example, A being better than C, was labelled as easy because it required participants to remember that A was better than B and B was better than C. However understanding that A was better than D meant recalling A was better than B, B better than C, and C better than D, and so was defined as hard.

When it came to the harder inferences, people who had a night’s sleep between training and testing got a startling 93% correct, whereas those who’d been busy all day only got 70%.

The experiment illustrates that combining what we know to generate new insights requires time, something that many might have guessed. Perhaps more revealingly it also shows the power of sleep in building remote associations. Making the links between pieces of information that our daytime rational minds see as separate seems to be easiest when we’re offline, drifting through the dreamworld.

It is this function of sleep that might also explain why those first moments upon waking can be among our most creative. Dreams may seem weird, but just because they don’t make sense to your rational waking consciousness doesn’t make them purposeless. I was at my keyboard two minutes after waking up in an effort to harness some dreamworld creativity and help me write this column – memories of dreams involving trying to rob a bank with my old chemistry teacher, and playing tennis with a racket made of spaghetti, still tinging the edges of my consciousness.

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here. I had the idea for the column while drinking coffee with Helen Mort. Caffeine consumption being, of course, another favourite way to encourage creativity!