More Coldplay than Radiohead

The runaway success of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the book written from the perspective of a young autistic boy, has not entirely pleased its author Mark Haddon:

“I’m just suspicious that too many people liked it. All the books I really like are loathed by some people…It’s like you want to be Radiohead and then you think, shit, I’ve accidentally turned into Coldplay”.

Source: The Week.

New source of online psychology news

April cover.JPGThe latest news reports of The Psychologist magazine now appear online first, freely available for anyone to read.

Recent entries include a report on the Royal Institution debate: “What’s the worst ever idea on the mind?”; a discussion of whether increased rates of autism are all down to changes in diagnosis; and – is it the lack of psychologists that makes the Pacific island of Vanuatu the happiest place on earth?

Combined with all its full-length articles older than 6 months also being freely available to view, The Psychologist website now offers a veritable feast of material for anyone interested in psychology (BPS members have full access to all articles).

Link to The Psychologist magazine.

Disclaimer: I work for The Psychologist magazine.

Biological psychiatry pioneer dies

american journal of psychiatry2.GIFOne of the pioneers of biological psychiatry, Professor Joseph Schildkraut, died recently, aged 72.

“Thanks to Schildkraut, it was generally accepted that depression is a medical illness and that many mental disorders are related to imbalances in chemicals in the brain”, says his obituary that appeared in the Times.

Schildkraut laid out his ideas in the 1965 paper “The Catecholamine Hypothesis of Affective Disorders”, which became the most highly cited paper ever to appear in the American Journal of Psychiatry, and one of the most cited papers in all of psychiatry.

“He saw patients who had been unresponsive to talk therapy suddenly come alive when drugs were introduced, and he got very excited about that,” his wife, Betsy Schildkraut, told the Boston Globe.

Dr. Alan I. Green, chairman of Dartmouth Medical School’s psychiatry department told the Globe: ‚ÄúI think he was a giant in the field. I think that initial paper, perhaps more than any other, defined the psychopharmacological era.‚Äù

However, Professor Schildkraut’s death comes at a time of increasing scepticism towards the chemical imbalance model of mental illness. At a recent debate hosted by the Royal Institution, psychiatrist Joanna Moncrieff of UCL recently named the model as the worst ever idea on the mind.

In the last 15 years of his career, Professor Schildkraut studied the link between depression, spirituality and artistic creativity. He had also been committed to bringing the best medical care to people who ordinarily could not afford it.

Link to Times Obituary.
Link to abstract of The Catecholamine Hypothesis.

Mind-reading competition

brain image interpretation.jpgDon’t worry, this isn’t about telepathy and doesn’t involve Uri Gellar.

No, it’s about a team of three Italian researchers who won $10000 in a brain-activity interpretation competition organised by the University of Pittsburgh earlier this year.

Entrants were provided with the fMRI data and behavioural reports recorded when four people watched two movies. The competitors’ task was to create an algorithm that could use the viewers ongoing brain activity to predict what they were thinking and feeling as the film unfolded. The crunch test came from a third film. This time the competing researchers were shown the viewers’ brain activity only, and they had to predict the behavioural data – what the viewers had reported seeing and feeling during the film on a moment-by-moment basis. The full rules are here.

The Italians – Emanuele Olivetti, Diego Sona, and Sriharsha Veeramachaneni were the most accurate, achieving a correlation of .86 for basic features, such as whether an instant of the film contained music. The full results are here.

I heard about this from the latest Nature Neuroscience editorial. They discuss the competition in the context of the increasing trend for researchers to see if they can predict what people are thinking based on their overall brain activity (this often gets discussed in relation to lie detection), rather than the more traditional correlational/localisation approach of seeing what brain activity occurs where, when people are thinking certain things.

The Nature Neurosci. editors welcome the shift:

Neuroimaging’s obsession with localization has often led to accusations that it is little more than phrenology. By using population responses across the whole brain to ask how rather than where information is processed, neuroimaging may be starting to come of age.

Link to the competition website.

Born to be bad?

criminal personality.jpgThe latest issue of Prospect magazine features a fresh in-depth analysis of whether there is such a thing as a criminal personality. The author David Rose of the Observer notes that contemporary politicans have tended to focus on the social causes of criminality – think of Blair’s ‘tough on the causes of crime’ speech. But he points to new research showing that genetic factors are also key, in particular he highlights research by Terrie Moffitt and colleagues at the Institute of Psychiatry, including a study showing that whether childhood maltreatment leads to later increased risk of criminality depends in part on the variant of the MAOA gene that a person has. The gene codes for the enzyme monoamine oxidase A, and is involved in the regulation of neurotransmitter levels. A person with a low activity variant of this gene who is maltreated is far more likely to develop antisocial behaviour.

Link to Prospect article (open access).
Link to the Dunedin Study.

Neurologism spotting

I just read the recent New Sci article on mind reading with fMRI that Vaughan flagged up recently, and couldn’t help noticing two more neurologisms coined by the writer of the article, Douglas Fox.

Neuronaut: Fox describes getting ready to enter the brain scanner – “As they prepared the experiment this morning, I felt like an astronaut – a neuronaut you might say – getting ready for launch”. So a neuronaut is a virgin neurosi experimental subject.

Neuro-legible: The researchers had managed to read Fox’s brain with 90 per cent accuracy. “As I hang up, I’m strangely glad to know my brain is neuro-legible…”. So neuro-legibility describes how easily your brain can be read by brain scanning technologies.

Link to Vaughan on the New Sci article.
Link 1, 2, and 3 for Mind Hacks posts on the search for neurologisms.

New infant language lab at Liverpool Uni

liverpool infant language lab.JPG

Liverpool University’s new Child Language Study Centre hopes to become the first UK-based lab to replicate and expand upon American findings published in the 90’s that led to the ‘syntactic bootstrapping’ hypothesis – the idea that children as young as two use their innate understanding of syntax to help them learn new words.

With a team of six researchers led by Professor Julian Pine, the Centre is one of the largest of its kind in the UK. And after launching last Summer, the centre is now ready to start experimenting.

“In essence the syntactic bootstrapping hypothesis assumes the child has an innate predisposition to understand the syntactic properties of language. We want to know if this is true or not”, Dr. Javier Aguado-Orea, a researcher in the lab, told Mind Hacks.

In one study, the researchers will present young children with sentences containing an unfamiliar verb (e.g. ‘the boy strokes the girl’). Either side of the speaker playing the pre-recorded sentences will be two video screens showing a boy and girl, with one of them matching the action described in the spoken sentence. In this example, the structure of the sentence reveals the boy as the active player and the researchers want to know if the children can use that information to guide them to look at the correct video screen, thus facilitating their learning of the meaning of the verb ‘to stroke’.

“It can be tricky, for six months we’ve been piloting our stimuli – for example, you have to make sure that the child is looking at the correct screen based on the structure of the sentence, not because one of the characters or objects is more attractive to them”, Aguado-Orea explained.

“But if we are able to replicate this finding it would be quite powerful because it would be an indication of a very early stage in the development of language, and it would illustrate learning mechanisms that there is no other way, in our knowledge, to detect” he said.

The Centre have tested 11 children on this particular experiment so far, but they need at least 12 more. Parents willing to volunteer their child should email childlanguage[@] for further information.

Link to lab.