Cognitive Sciences Stack Exchange

Cognitive Sciences Stack Exchange is a question and answer forum for Cognitive Science. The Stack Exchange model works well for computer programming and now cogsci.stackexchange.com is one of the 150+ sites in their family, which includes topics as diverse as academia, mythology and pets.

There’s a dedicated community of people answering questions and voting on answers, producing  a great resource patterned around the questions people have on Cognitive Science topics. Three examples:

So head over, if you have questions, or if you can lend an evidence-based, citation-supported, hand in working on answers:

Link: Cognitive Sciences Stack Exchange

The underground smart drug amendment

CC Licensed Image from Flickr user e-Magine Art. Click for source.Last week, some amendments were quietly slipped into the disastrous Psychoactive Substances Bill that’s currently going through parliament. Surprisingly, a new list of permitted substances has been added. Almost all are poorly evidenced substances used informally as ‘smart drugs’.

The bill is an embarrassingly bad piece of legislation that aims to ban all psychoactive substances by relying on the scientific impossibility of adequately defining ‘psychoactive’. It allows for a ‘whitelist’ of approved drugs which until last week, only included alcohol, nicotine and caffeine.

On December 15th, an amendment was added that greatly increases that list. It now includes:

Racetams
Pramiracetam, Oxiracetam, N-phenylacetyl-L-prolylglycine ethyl ester, Phenylpiracetam, Nefiracetam

Cholinergics
L-Alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine, Citicoline, Meclofenoxate

Miscellaneous
L-Theanine, Oxitriptan, Tongkat Ali, Resveratol, Trans-resveratol, Sulbutiamine

The list is followed by a note which says:

The substances in this amendment are commonly used to improve individuals’ cognitive performance and have been found to have positive effects in a number of academic studies.

The list almost entirely consists of drugs that are widely used by smart drug or nootropics enthusiasts. But to imply that there is good evidence that they have ‘positive effects’ on cognition is entirely misleading.

While some studies have claimed these effects we simply do not have the quality of evidence needed to demonstrate this. Most of the studies that have shown benefits are small and poorly designed.

We know that some of the substances are likely to be low risk in small doses. Oxitriptan, for example, is better known as 5-HTP and is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin and is present in, among other things, bananas. Sulbutiamine is essentially a slightly tweaked version of vitamin B1.

But several of the others are actually quite poorly researched in terms of safety. Typically, few side-effects were reported in the not-very-good-quality studies, but we really know very little about their long-term effects.

What is most striking about this sudden addition to the bill is how odd it is. Suddenly, a list of poorly tested and little understood drugs have been exempted from a ban if the bill becomes law.

The backers of the bill claim that it is needed to protect us from an influx of new poorly tested substances from grey market labs, and then have just exempted a bunch of them based on poorly evidenced claim that they improve cognition.

It’s like someone read the pop-up banner ads for a dodgy internet ‘smart drug’ store and decided to change the proposed law as a result.

The Psychoactive Substances Bill has gone from bizarre to baffling.
 

Link to December 15th bill amendments (via @JonBuchan)

The Peer Reviewers’ Openness Initiative

pro_lockThe Peer Reviewers’ Openness Initiative” is a grassroots attempt to promote open science by organising academics’ work as reviewers. All academics spend countless hours on peer review, a task which is unpaid, often pretty thankless, and yet employs their unique and hard-won skills as scholars. We do this, despite misgivings about the current state of scholarly publishing, because we know that good science depends on review and criticism.

Often this work is hampered because papers don’t disclose the data upon which the conclusions were drawn, or even share the materials used in the experiments. When journal articles only appeared in print and space was limited this was excusable. It no longer is.

The Peer Reviewers’ Openness Initiative is a pledge scholars can take, saying that they will not recommend for publication any article which does not make the data, materials and analysis code publicly available. You can read the exact details of the initiative here and you can sign it here.

The good of society, and for the good of science, everybody should be able to benefit from, and criticise, in all details, scientific work. Good science is open science.

Link: The Peer Reviewers’ Openness Initiative

Spike activity 18-12-2015

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

12% of women have eyes with four colour-detecting cone cells instead of three. Why don’t they all have superhuman colour vision? Fascinating piece from great new blog Neurosphere.

The BMJ has a genuine but wonderfully sarcastic fMRI study on a Christmas spirit network in the brain. “Further research is necessary to understand this and other potential holiday circuits in the brain”

In a mass of tissue as densely packed and hard-working as the brain, even the holes among the structural elements have jobs to do. Good piece from American Scientist.

The Maudsley Psychedelic Society launched this week with an inaugural lecture by Professor David Nutt. Visuals are suitably blurry in places but great talk.

Trying to simulate the human brain is a waste of time and energy. Critical piece in Aeon.

The Atlantic has an excellent piece on the emotional impact of working with traumatised patients if you’re a therapist. Ignore the daft headline on ‘PTSD being contagious’.

Good piece in MIT Tech Review. Can This Man Make AI More Human? One cognitive scientist thinks the leading approach to machine learning can be improved by ideas gleaned from studying children.

The Lancet has an excellent piece on hallucinated voices, identity, and meaning-making.

A Brief History of New York City’s Heroin Scene. Excellent Vice article from someone who was there.

Neurocritic covers ‘This Week in Neuroblunders: fMRI Edition’.

Why human sleep is an evolutionary anomaly. Fascinating piece in The New York Times.

Alzheimer’s from the inside

There’s an excellent short-film, featuring journalist Greg O’Brien, who describes the experience of Alzheimer’s disease as it affects him.

It’s both moving and brilliantly made, skilfully combining the neuroscience of Alzheimer’s with the raw experience of experiencing dementia.

I found it in this Nautilus article, also by O’Brien, who has taken the rare step of writing a book about the experience of Alzheimer’s disease before it affected his ability to write.
 

Link to short film Inside Alzheimer’s on vimeo.
Link to Nautilus article.

Drug control through fantasy neuroscience

I’ve got an article in today’s Observer about the disastrous Psychoactive Substances Bill, a proposed law designed to outlaw all psychoactive substances based on a fantasy land version of neuroscience.

“The bottom line is, the only way of knowing whether a mystery substance alters the mind is to take it. You simply can’t tell by chemical tests, because there is no direct mapping between molecular structure and mental experience. If you could solve the problem of working out whether a substance would affect the conscious mind purely from its chemistry, you would have done Nobel prize winning work on the the problem of consciousness. A second-rank approach is just to see whether a new substance is similar to a known family of mind-altering drugs, but even here there are no guarantees. A slight tweak can make a similar drug completely inactive and about as much fun as Theresa May at a techno night.”

Although I talk about the scientific problems of the Psychoactive Substances Bill, the whole process has been a farce.

From the minister in charge clearly not understanding his own legislation to the Government having to reassure churches that incense won’t be banned.

It’s been criticised from everyone from the Royal Society of Chemistry to traditional Tory supporters stalwarts like The Spectator.

The Medical Research Council have expressed concerns that it could “inhibit worthwhile research and/or potential new therapeutics”.

Just as the rest of the world is turning away from the failed ‘war on drugs’ approach to drug legislation, the UK has decided to make up its own scientific impossibilities to support it.

Normally, scientific impossibilities would be the death knell for proposed regulation but for drugs laws I have long since stopped believing that scientific incompetence was any barrier to enacting legislation.
 

Link to article ‘Theresa May’s futile war on psychoactive drugs’

5 classic studies of learning

Photo by Wellcome and Flickr user Rebecca-Lee. Click for source.I have a piece in the Guardian, ‘The science of learning: five classic studies‘. Here’s the intro:

A few classic studies help to define the way we think about the science of learning. A classic study isn’t classic just because it uncovered a new fact, but because it neatly demonstrates a profound truth about how we learn – often at the same time showing up our unjustified assumptions about how our minds work.

My picks for five classics of learning were:

  • Bartlett’s “War of the Ghosts”
  • Skinner’s operant conditioning
  • work on dissociable memory systems by Larry Squire and colleagues
  • de Groot’s studies of expertise in chess grandmasters, and ….
  • Anders Ericcson’s work on deliberate practice (of ‘ten thousands hours’ fame)

Obviously, that’s just my choice (and you can read my reasons in the article). Did I choose right? Or is there a classic study of learning I missed? Answers in the comments.

Link: ‘The science of learning: five classic studies