NewSci on music, depression and brain-cooling chips

ns_20050716.jpgThis week’s New Scientist has three articles relevant to mind and brain science: An interview with controversial psychiatrist Peter Kramer, an article on the evolution of music, and an article on the development of brain-cooling anti-epilepsy chips.

The chips are being developed by neurologist Steven Rothman and work on the principle that brain cells stop working when cooled.

Some epilepsy is triggered by the activity of a small identifiable area, known as the foci, and spreads to the rest of the brain with catastrophic effect.

The idea is to implant a microchip that can detect when seizure activity starts, which subsequently starts a cooling device to temporarily deactivate the area of brain, stopping the seizure before it spreads.

The other articles include an interview with champion of biological psychiatry, and author of Listening to Prozac – Peter D. Kramer, and an article on evolutionary explanations for the existence of music.

Unfortunately, none are available online, although locked articles are occasionally freed-up after a few days, so we’ll link to them if they appear. Otherwise, it may require a trip to the newsagents or the local library.

Link to contents of New Scientist

Health Report on coping with negative emotions

The latest edition of ABC Radio’s Health Report focuses on coping with negative thoughts and emotions, and the differing responses to fear in the brains of men and women.


The programme also discusses research into how well young people can spot the signs of clinical depression and psychosis, an approach to helping people cope with suicidal thoughts, and how depression can affect people through generations.

One highlight is an interview with Dr Simon Bridge, an australian GP with a special interest in mental health, and who has experienced suicidal thoughts himself as a part of his experience with bipolar disorder.

He developed a pamphlet that gives advice on coping with suicidal thoughts which is available online as a PDF.

Link to Health Report website.
mp3 or realaudio of programme audio.

Afternoon play on Richard Dadd

BBC Radio 4’s Afternoon Play from last Tuesday was on artist Richard Dadd, who spent most of his life in the wing for the criminally insane in Bethlem Hospital.

It is 1854. In the Criminal Wing of Bethlem Hospital for the Insane, painter Richard Dadd and poet Emily Clayton are caught in the middle, as two rival doctors seek to reform the treatment of the mentally ill.

The audio of the play is online until next Monday.

Realaudio of play ‘Talk’ by Mark Wilson.

Cafe Bar Scientifique in Cardiff, 9 July

Myself and Alex will be helping out at a Cafe Scientifique-type event in Cardiff tomorrow evening (Saturday the 9th), as part of the Cardiff Festival of Science.

The gig is at The Social, upstairs, from 6pm. There’ll be a discussion of material from the BBC’s ‘The Human Mind’ show (which overlaps quite a lot with some of the contents of Mind Hacks) and then a free-form Q & A session. It sounds like it’s going to be lots of fun, so if you have any questions or answers about the mind, brain or Mind Hacks, and can make it, it would be great to see you there.

Knickers in a twist over ‘brainstorming’

According to an article in The Observer, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) in Belfast have been told to avoid using the word ‘brainstorming’ as it may be offensive to people with epilepsy. Instead they’ve been asked to use the term ‘thought-showers’.

Apart from verging on self-parody, it seems based on a false idea that epilepsy involves chaotic or random brain activity, when in fact it is usually the result of brain cells inappropriately synchronising.

Unsurprisingly, the charity Epilepsy Action seem to have a more sensible take on the matter:

We are often asked about the word ‘brainstorming’ and whether its use is acceptable. Our view is that it depends upon the context: if the word is being used to describe a meeting where participants are suggesting ideas, then its use is not offensive to people with epilepsy. However, it should not be used to describe a seizure or the electrical activity within the brain during a seizure.

Link to Observer article ‘Brainstorms turn to showers’.
Link to Epilepsy Action.

The BIG questions

question_mark_2.jpgTo celebrate its 125th anniversary, Science magazine in America has published a series of free articles counting down the 125 biggest questions facing science in the next quarter century.

In second place is: “What is the biological basis of consciousness?”. Other top-25 entries of particular interest to Mind Hackers are: “How are memories stored and retrieved?”, and “How did cooperative behaviour evolve?”.

Philosophy and limb amputation

darklit_arm.jpgAustralian philosophers Tim Bayne and Neil Levy have argued that people who want to be amputees should be allowed to have elective amputations, even if they have healthy limbs.

This unusual desire has been labelled ‘body integrity identity disorder‘ or BIID by psychiatrists.

It has caused much ethical concern among doctors who are bound by the hippocratic oath to ‘do no harm’, but are faced with some patients wanting healthy limbs removed.

Bayne and Levy argue that such people are not “globally irrational”, and should be considered to have the capacity to make such decisions about their body.

Tim Bayne has previously done work on delusions and rationality, and has extended this analysis into applied ethics.

Link to story from ABC News.
Link to study abstract.
Link to Tim Bayne’s homepage with full-text publications.

NewSci on autism, free will and homo florensis

ns20050618.jpgThis week’s New Scientist has a slew of articles relevant to the mind, brain and behaviour.

The most notable is on the developing ‘autism rights’ movement, which aims to reframe autism and Asperger’s syndrome as a normal (if perhaps, less common) human variation.

This is championed by groups such as Aspies for Freedom, but has caused controversy, particularly with carers of people with autism who are more severely disabled by their condition.

New Scientist also tackles the ongoing implications of the discovery of the remains of homo florensis, the small humanoid nicknamed the ‘hobbit’.

Finally, there is an article on whether the universe is deterministic, i.e. purely ‘mechanical’ in nature, and whether this is compatible with notions of free will.

Sadly, none of these are available online, although occasionally they do appear in the days following publication. If any become available, we’ll be sure to link to them here.

Link to New Scientist table of contents.

Psychosis and modern-day hysteria

natasham.jpgMind Hacks favourite All in the Mind had a split edition on Saturday, discussing the topics of hysteria (otherwise known as conversion disorder) and the neuroscience of psychosis.

Conversion disorder is a poorly understood condition where physical symptoms, sometimes as severe as total paralysis, seem to be caused by psychological problems and have no basis in detectable damage to the nervous system or other parts of the body.

It is now thought that these sorts of problems occur on a continuum of medically unexplained symptoms and that milder forms are a significant part of a doctor’s caseload.

The second part of the programme discusses the dopamine hypothesis of psychosis, that argues that delusions and hallucinations can be largely explained by dysfunction to the dopamine systems in the brain.

My impression is that the discussion is a little uncritical of this over-simplified theory of the complex experience of psychosis, but is valuable as a clear explanation of the approach none-the-less.

mp3, Realaudio or transcript of 11th June “All in the Mind”.

Link to editorial from Canadian Journal of Psychiatry on conversion disorder and related conditions (see side panel for further articles).

Internet delusions

question_key.jpgA report in the medical journal Psychopathology notes that psychotic delusions increasingly concern the internet, suggesting high-technology can fulfil the role of malign ‘magical’ forces often experienced in psychosis.

Traditionally, psychiatry has considered the content of delusions as irrelevant and only sees the ‘form’ of a belief as important in diagnosis and treatment. For example, how true it is, how strongly it is held, how it was formed and so on.

This paper analyzes four case-reports and notes that, contrary to the traditional view, the cases are examples where an internet-theme has particular clinical implications.

In one case, a patient began to have paranoid thoughts and used an internet search engine to investigate suspicions about an ingredient on a chewing gum packet.

Her searches led her to believe she had discovered a secret terrorist network, and was therefore being personally targeted by the authorities using phone taps and hidden cameras.

Presumably, by using a different search engine, she would have found different pages, and her delusion would have been centred on something else.

The authors also consider that a person’s understanding of technology may be a limiting factor in their ability to incorporate it into a delusional system. People with a poor understanding for example, may be more likely to attribute seemingly supernatural abilities to technology.

As Arthur C. Clarke famously noted “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

In delusions that feature spirits or other supernatural forces, there is no objective limit to the perceived ‘powers’ of the ‘spirits’, making such delusions sometimes difficult to refute.

In contrast, technology-related delusions can be more easily tested against reality, making for a good prognosis by using techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy.

The authors also note that cultural concerns can influence delusional beliefs, suggesting technology-related delusions will become more common as the use of high-technology grows.

Link to study abstract.
PDF of full text.

Disclaimer: This paper is from my own research group.

SciAm Mind on the darker side of human nature

sciam_mind_lie_cover.jpgThe latest edition of Scientific American Mind has just hit the shelves. Two articles have been made freely available online – one on lying and deceit and the other on the psychology of bullying.

The cover story on lying discusses the adaptive advantages of deception in its various forms throughout both the plant and animal kingdoms.

It also discusses the seemingly paradoxical process of self-deception:

[Benjamin Libet] found that our brains begin to prepare for action just over a third of a second before we consciously decide to act. In other words, despite appearances, it is not the conscious mind that decides to perform an action: the decision is made unconsciously… This study and others like it suggest that we are systematically deluded about the role consciousness plays in our lives.

This general model of the mind, supported by various experiments beyond Libet’s, gives us exactly what we need to resolve the paradox of self-deception–at least in theory. We are able to deceive ourselves by invoking the equivalent of a cognitive filter between unconscious cognition and conscious awareness.

The article on child bullying examines research into the motivations of bullies, and effective methods for children, parents and teachers to stop and prevent bullying in schools.

Other articles only available in the print edition cover the neuroscience of hypnosis, improving memory through visualisation techniques, an interview with consciousness researcher Christof Koch, dreaming, transcranial magnetic stimulation, sign language, neuromarketing and research into why people confess to crimes they haven’t committed.

Link to article Natural-Born Liars.
Link to article Stopping the Bullies

BBC Discovery on Memory

magritte.jpgDiscovery, the science programme from the BBC World Service, starts the first of a four part series on the psychology and neuroscience of memory.

“…its extraordinary capabilities, how and why it can go wrong – from the vivid intrusions of memory in post traumatic stress disorder to our uncanny ability to adopt memories that aren’t even our own. We’ll find out how and why memory fails and what we can do to improve it.”

The first programme looks at how memory is based in the neurons and structures of the brain and interviews a number of notable memory researchers such as Martin Conway and Kim Graham.

Unfortunately, it looks like the programme isn’t archived online for longer than a week, but the latest programme appears online each Wednesday at 09:00 GMT.

Realaudio archive of last week’s programme.
Link to webpage of BBC World Service Discovery programme.

Health Report on the science and ethics of ADHD

pill_bottle.jpgABC Radio National continues its tradition of high-quality science radio with an edition of Health Report focusing on Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, better known as ADHD.

The programme discusses progress in current treatments for ADHD and the latest findings in causes, mechanisms and confusions in understanding the condition.

ADHD is a controversial subject, particularly in the area of treatment, as it is common for doctors to suggest the use of amphetamines or amphetamine-like drugs in people diagnosed with the condition.

As these drugs are often prescribed for children, this has been the subject of much debate concerning the ethics of appropriate classification and treatment.

A further segment of the programme – on neuroprosthetics – is a good introduction to the science of human-brain interfaces, although largely covers the same ground as a radio show on the same topic recently featured on Mind Hacks.

Realaudio archive of May 9th Health Report.
Link to transcript of ADHD segment.
PDF of debate on treatment of ADHD from The Psychologist.

Ramachandran interviewed on Radio National

ramachandran.jpgNeuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran features on the latest edition of ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind where he is interviewed about how the mind and brain understand art.

Ramachandran is well known as a broadcaster and author. Notably for his book Phantoms in the Brain and for giving the 2003 BBC Reith Lectures on The Emerging Mind.

UK magazine The Psychologist has just made an interview with V.S. Ramachandran available online (PDF). Ramachandram is interviewed by our very own Tom Stafford.

Realaudio of All in the Mind interview with V.S. Ramachandran
Link to transcript of programme.

Sudden recovery of brain function after 10 years

The New York Times reports on a firefighter who has made a remarkable and sudden recovery after suffering severe brain injury in 1995.

Donald Herbert sustained a serious head injury when a roof collapsed during a fire fighting operation and has been in hospital since, with his ability to communicate and recognise people severely impaired.

According to news sources, Mr Herbert suddenly started speaking after 10 years, asking to see his wife and other family members.

The recovery has left doctors baffled. So little is known about how the brain repairs and regenerates after injury that it is difficult to predict the course of recovery, although substantial improvement after the first few years of injury are rare.

Some other remarkable cases have been recorded though, including the case of Terry Wallis who regained consciousness after 19 years.

Link to story from New York Times.
Link to story from Yahoo News.
Link to additional information on recovery at the Brain Injury Recovery Network.