Spike activity 28-03-2014

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

Can charisma and leadership be taught? Matter looks at the history of ‘charm consultants’.

Mental health stigma: where’s my cheesecake? A piece on the Brain Flapping discusses how people react when you’re depressed.

Science News has an odd story about how 1 in 68 American 8-year-olds are diagnosed with autism and this shows how diagnosis is ‘working well’. No mention of diagnostic inflation.

The inimitable Ed Yong does a fantastic TED talk on mind-controlling parasites.

The New Yorker discusses how artificial intelligence is being applied to the board game Go.

You can’t dismiss brain imaging as just an academic gimmick. A sterling defence of fMRI in The Conversation.

The BBC has an excellent piece on the legacy of the treatment of ‘shell shock’ during the First World War on mental health.

What does it mean to say that your mind and brain are ‘at rest‘? Interesting piece in The Guardian.

Digital Trends discusses a tiny implanted brain chip for brain-computer interfaces.

Why Light Inspires Ritual. Interesting anthropological piece in Nautilus.

Bomb disposal for the brain

New Statesman has an excellent profile of the wise, funny and acerbic neurosurgeon Henry Marsh.

Marsh was the subject of the fantastic 2007 documentary The English Surgeon but he’s now one year away from retirement and has clearly decided that diplomatic responses are no longer a tactical necessity.

The piece also gives a vivid insight into the working life and daily challenges of a consultant neurosurgeon.

It’s also wonderfully written. This is pure joy:

When he finally went to medical school, at the Royal Free Hospital in London, he wasn’t sure about his choice. “I thought medicine was very boring,” he says bluntly. Henry is not a man to refrain from speaking his mind. “I didn’t like doctors. I didn’t like surgeons. It all seemed a bit dumb to me.” In Do No Harm he writes of his revulsion at what much surgery generally entails: “long bloody incisions and the handling of large and slippery body parts”.

But while working as a senior house officer, he observed a neurosurgeon use an operating microscope to clip off an aneurysm – a small, balloon-like blowout on the cerebral arteries that can cause catastrophic haemorrhages. It is intensely delicate work, using microscopic instruments to manipulate blood vessels just a few millimetres in diameter. It is also, as Henry says, like bomb disposal work, in that it can go very badly wrong – with the crucial difference that it is only the patient’s life at risk, not the surgeon’s. If this or any other kind of serious neurosurgery goes right, however, the doctor is a hero. “Neurosurgery,” he smiles, “appealed to my sense of glory and self-importance.”

Marsh has just written an autobiography called Do No Harm which I’ve just started reading. I’m only part way through but it’s already gripping and wonderfully indiscreet.
 

Link to New Statesman profile of Henry Marsh.

The genes are to blame game

The media love ‘your genes are to blame’ stories despite the fact that genetics is, in most cases, just one, often small, influence on a behaviour or trait.

Here’s a few lowlights:

Glass always half-empty? Your genes may be to blame
Lazy? Your Genes May Be to Blame
Have math anxiety? Your genes may be to blame
Couch potato? Your GENES could be to blame
Are You Forgetful? Your Genes Might Be To Blame
Are your genes to blame for not being rich?
Can’t do well in exams? Your genes are mostly to blame
Are Genetics to Blame for Poor Driving?
Genes to blame for boozy night

Spoiler: your genes are not to blame.

Firstly, it’s interesting that these stories are almost always framed around difficulties or negative characteristics. Rarely do you read stories along the lines of ‘Good looking? Compassionate? Healthy? Your genes may be to blame’.

In other words, they rely on people’s interest in discounting negative characteristics about themselves to attract readers / advertising targets at the expense of biasing the sorts of scientific results that get media attention.

So here would be a a more accurate if not slightly less catchy version of all these headlines: ‘Have this specific trait or behaviour? Your genes may typically contribute a small to moderate amount to the difference between people if you are similar to the population used in the study to estimate this effect – bearing in mind the caveats about the need to independently replicate the results to be confident in the reliability of the conclusions’

Yes, it doesn’t have quite the same impact as the ‘blame your genes’ headlines but you can still illustrate it with a stock photo of a blonde girl with an exaggerated expression of frustration on her face. Not all bad news, is it editors?

It’s worth saying that these sorts of stories are almost always about traits or behaviours where genetics contributes only a partial amount to the overall outcome but this is not a feature of genetics per se, it depends on what you’re looking at.

On one end of the spectrum are highly penetrant single gene disorders like Huntingdon’s disease where if you have the gene you’ll get the disorder. On the other end are much of human behaviours and traits where there are likely many genes that contribute a varying amount indirectly to the overall difference depending on the population being studied.

No-one has yet done a study on genetic contributions to differences in the likelihood of writing ‘your genes are to blame’ stories – probably due to a fear of opening a recursive media loop from which we may never emerge.

A balanced look at brain scanning

Bioethics think tank The Hastings Center have published an excellent open-access report on ‘Interpreting Neuroimages: The Technology and its Limits’ that takes a critical but balanced look at the use of brain scans for understanding the mind.

They’ve commissioned leading cognitive neuroscientists to write chapters including Geoffrey Aguirre, Martha Farah and Helen Mayberg, as well as having a chapter by some legal folks who discuss whether neuroimaging can teach us anything about moral and legal responsibility.

The chapter by the brilliant Martha Farah is particularly good and takes a level-headed look at the critiques of fMRI and is essential reading if you want to get up to speed on what brain scans are likely to tell us about the mind and brain.

The report is all in academic writing but if you’re a dedicated neuroscience fan, it probably won’t pose too much of a problem.

 

Link to ‘Interpreting Neuroimages: The Technology and its Limits’.

Spike activity 21-03-2014

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

The thrill of cutting into a human brain says The Spectator, who have clearly never tried to operate on themselves after reading a HOWTO on the internet.

The Loom has collected some brain visualisation fly-throughs and give the low-down and what they’re about.

It turns out the Daily Mail is obsessed with brain tumours – to quite a weird extent.

Time magazine reports that after having pharmaceutical companies refuse to provide drugs for lethal injection, Texas announces it has found a new supply of execution drugs but won’t say from where.

fMRI – through the medium of song. Neurocritic finds a musical number on brain imaging.

Science News has an interesting interview on the science of unconsciousness.

Does the brain speak the truth of the self? Somatosphere with a wordy but rewarding essay.

Nature reports that the US BRAIN initiative and European Human Brain Project are to join forces. Rebel neuroscientists, striking from a hidden base…

A modern psychiatry

If you want to know how your average reasonable mainstream medical psychiatrist thinks about mental illness, Aeon magazine has a good piece that captures where many are coming from.

Now before you (yes you) Dr average reasonable mainstream medical psychiatrist, says that you don’t agree with all of it, I’m not suggesting it’s a manifesto, but it does cover a great deal of the mainstream.

We could argue a few points over some of the empirical claims, but it’s a surprisingly good snapshot in the round.

Probably the most important thing it underlines is that most psychiatrists are less obsessed with diagnosis than people who are are obsessed about the fact that psychiatrists make diagnoses.

Most psychiatrists typically don’t think that ‘every diagnosis is a disease’ and recognise the fuzziness of the boundaries – as indeed, do most medical professionals.

The article also highlights the fact that the medicalisation of emotional distress is driven as much by public demand as it is by drug company profiteering. People like pill-shaped convenience and drug companies make it their business to take advantage of this.

I would also say that the piece reflects mainstream psychiatric thinking by what it leaves out: a sufficient discussion of the psychiatric deprivation of liberty and autonomy – and its emotional impact on individuals.

Considering that this is the thing most likely to be experienced as traumatic, it is still greatly under-emphasised in internal debates and it remains conspicuous by its absence.
 

Link to ‘A Mad World’ on Aeon magazine.

Frozen nightmares

The Devil in the Room is a fantastic short film about the experience of hallucinatory sleep paralysis – a common experience that has been widely mythologised around the world.

Sleep paralysis is the experience of being unable to move during the process of waking – when you have regained consciousness but you’re brain has not re-engaged your ability to control your muscles.

The reason the experience has been widely associated with mythological creatures is because in some people it can lead to intense emotions and hallucinations.

The name ‘sleep paralysis’ is a bit confusing because this also refers to normal sleep paralysis – where your brain disengages control of your muscles during REM sleep to stop you ‘acting out’ your dreams.

The film is part of the Sleep Paralysis Project, which has much more about the experience on their website.
 

Link to ‘Devil in the Room’ on vimeo.