The End of Prozac Nation and the Rise of Deep Brain Stimulation
Vaughan Bell on the shift from psychiatric drugs that act on one specific neurotransmitter in favor of a “circuit” driven model of treating mental and neurological disorders:
In its place is a science focused on understanding the brain as a series of networks, each of which supports a different aspect of our experience and behaviour. By this analysis, the brain is a bit like a city: you can’t make sense of the bigger picture without knowing how everything interacts. Relatively few residents of Belfast who live in the Shankill spend their money in the Falls Road and this tells us much more about the city – as these are the key loyalist and republican areas – than knowing that the average income of each area is much the same. Similarly, knowing that key brain areas interact differently when someone gets depressed tells us something important that a measure of average brain activity would miss. [...]
Perhaps more surprising for some is the explosion in deep brain stimulation procedures, where electrodes are implanted in the brains of patients to alter electronically the activity in specific neural circuits. Medtronic, just one of the manufacturers of these devices, claims that its stimulators have been used in more than 100,000 patients. Most of these involve well-tested and validated treatments for Parkinson’s disease, but increasingly they are being trialled for a wider range of problems. Recent studies have examined direct brain stimulation for treating pain, epilepsy, eating disorders, addiction, controlling aggression, enhancing memory and for intervening in a range of other behavioural problems.
Full Story: The Guardian: Changing brains: why neuroscience is ending the Prozac era
Deep brain stimulation to treat depression
The Curious Case of a Woman Addicted to Her Brain Implant
Not Science Fiction: A Brain In A Box To Let People Live On After Death
Fast Company on the latest in neurotech:
While their roundtable discussion admittedly sounded like a master’s exercise in strange science, the kicker is that all three are engaged in preliminary efforts to make this happen. Last year, at the resolutely mainstream MIT Media Lab, I saw Dr. Berger speak about hacking the memories of rats. Berger’s lab at USC is actively working on prosthetic brain implants that both falsify memories and stimulate brain function in damaged neurons. The lab’s work recently received media attention when it successfully generated new memories in a rat that had its hippocampus chemically disabled. In literature, Berger emphasizes his technology’s potential for treating Alzheimer’s and dementia through the possibility of “building spare parts for the brain;” on-stage in New York, he said it could also lead in the future to full-on brain transplants.
This would work in tandem with Kaplan’s and Lebedev’s specialties. The two Russian scientists research brain-computer interfaces (BCIs)–plug-in interfaces which meld the human brain and nervous system to computer operating systems. While BCIs are most commonly found in toys that read brainwaves to detect stress or concentration, they have revolutionary potential to change the lives of stroke victims and the disabled.
Full Story: Fast CoExist: Not Science Fiction: A Brain In A Box To Let People Live On After Death
Doctors Worry About DIY Brain Shocks
A recent paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics warns of the dangers of DIY transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). The National Post reports:
Those risks include reversing the polarity of the electrodes to cause impairment instead of benefit, and triggering potentially long-lasting and negative changes to the brain’s biology, the researchers argue in the Journal of Medical Ethics. [...]
In fact, Health Canada considers tDCS machines to be class-three devices — on a scale of risk ranging from one to four — and has yet to approve any for treating psychological illness – though they are licensed for pain and insomnia therapy, said Leslie Meerburg, a department spokeswoman. [...]
One subtle but troubling risk could lie in the ability of the devices to change behaviour, with research by Prof. Fecteau and colleagues suggesting tDCS can actually make people better liars, or less empathetic, both qualities that could encourage unscrupulous conduct.
Full Story: Do-it-yourself brain stimulation has scientists worried as healthy people try to make their minds work better
Amusingly, after citing a researcher who says tDCS could make people better liars and less empathetic, the Post quotes someone selling a home tDCS rig saying that it is “very safe.” But, despite the somewhat sordid tone of the story, the actual paper Medical Ethics paper does say that tDCS is “relatively safe.” You can find the full paper here.
What’s Wrong With Cognitive Neuroscience
Talking about something in a neurobiological way sends the message that this is a neurobiological issue. In this way, many fMRI papers serve to spread the idea that this is an issue that only neuroscience can solve and, therefore, create a demand for more fMRI studies. The authors of this paper are victims of this mentality, a widespread confusion about what neuroscience is for.
fMRI is a great way to approach neuroscientific questions. It’s a bad (and terribly expensive) way to do psychology. This study is about psychology, and should not have involved an MRI scanner.
Full Story: Neuroskeptic: Looking Askance At Cognitive Neuroscience
See also: Think brain scans can reveal our innermost thoughts? Think again
The Quantified Brain of a Self-Tracking Neuroscientist
The MIT Technology Review reports:
Russell Poldrack, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Austin, is undertaking some intense introspection. Every day, he tracks his mood and mental state, what he ate, and how much time he spent outdoors. Twice a week, he gets his brain scanned in an MRI machine. And once a week, he has his blood drawn so that it can be analyzed for hormones and gene activity levels. Poldrack plans to gather a year’s worth of brain and body data to answer an unexplored question in the neuroscience community: how do brain networks behave and change over a year?
Full Story: MIT Technology Review: The Quantified Brain of a Self-Tracking Neuroscientist
DMT Found in the Pineal Gland of Live Rats
DMT: The Spirit Molecule author Rick Strassman’s organization the Cottonwood Research Foundation announces:
We’re excited to announce the acceptance for publication of a paper documenting the presence of DMT in the pineal glands of live rodents. The paper will appear in the journal Biomedical Chromatography and describes experiments that took place in Dr. Jimo Borjigin’s laboratory at the University of Michigan, where samples were collected. These samples were analyzed in Dr. Steven Barker’s laboratory at Louisiana State University, using methods that funding from the Cottonwood Research Foundation helped develop.
The pineal gland has been an object of great interest regarding consciousness for thousands of years, and a pineal source of DMT would help support a role for this enigmatic gland in unusual states of consciousness. Research at the University of Wisconsin has recently demonstrated the presence of the DMT-synthesizing enzyme as well as activity of the gene responsible for the enzyme in pineal (and retina). Our new data now establish that the enzyme actively produces DMT in the pineal.
The next step is to determine the presence of DMT in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), the fluid that bathes the brain and pineal. CSF is a possible route for pineal-synthesized DMT to effect changes in brain function. Successfully establishing DMT’s presence in this gland adds another link in the chain between the pineal and consciousness and opens new avenues for research.
Full Story: Cottonwood Research Foundation: DMT Found in the Pineal Gland of Live Rats
Previously: Scientific Evidence of Psychedelic Body Fluids
Understanding The Brain Of A Man With No Conscious Memory
The primary problem E.P. experienced came in what we’d probably call conscious memory, or what professionals call declarative memory. This involves, as the names imply, the ability to be aware of something we know, and to state it, whether it’s a historic event or the term for an obscure object. For example, E.P. moved to San Diego shortly after his illness, but he was never able to consciously remember the layout of his apartment or where the Pacific Ocean was, even though it was two miles from home. And although he could relate stories about the events of his youth, he’d often get repetitive while doing so—after all, he couldn’t remember which parts of the stories he’d already related.
But that doesn’t mean he had no memory. We store short-term information (like the digits we’re carrying when we’re doing math) in a place called working memory—and E.P.’s working memory was just fine. In some tests, he was blindfolded and led along a path up to 15 meters in length. When it was over, he was able to remember his start position successfully. But wait a few minutes, and the entire test faded from his memory. When asked, he’d tell the researchers that he’d been “in conversation” a few minutes earlier.
Full Story: Ars Technica: Understanding the brain of a man with no conscious memory
(Remind anyone of Memento?)
Fully Wireless Brain Implants Are Closer Than You Think
I wrote for Wired:
Wouldn’t it be great if you could control your PC with your brain? Well, this sort of thing may be closer than you think.
Researchers at Brown University have built the first wirelessly rechargeable brain implant that could be used to control wheelchairs, robotic arms, or computer interfaces like cursors and keyboards, as detailed in a paper published in the Journal of Neural Engineering.
Brown and a commercial spin-off called BrainGate have been testing a wired version of the system for years. But being tethered to a computer limits a patient’s range of motion — and it leaves an incision in your head that’s susceptible to infection, says Juan Aceros, a researcher on the project who is now an engineering professor at North Florida University.
So far, the wireless version has only been tested in two Yorkshire pigs and four rhesus macaque monkeys, but Aceros says they plan to test the system on human subjects. This requires approval from the FDA, which may take a couple years. The good news is the devices have been implanted in the animal subjects for over a year without significant complications.
Full Story: Wired Enterprise: Yorkshire Pigs Control Computer Gear With Brain Waves
Intercontinental mind-meld unites two rats
Brain implants powered by spinal fluid
Is Speed Reading Actually Possible?
Brian Dunning writes:
To truly measure reading speed, we’d have to draw a line at some minimum acceptable level of comprehension.
Ronald Carver, author of the 1990 book The Causes of High and Low Reading Achievement, is one researcher who has done extensive testing of readers and reading speed, and thoroughly examined the various speed reading techniques and the actual improvement likely to be gained. One notable test he did pitted four groups of the fastest readers he could find against each other. The groups consisted of champion speed readers, fast college readers, successful professionals whose jobs required a lot of reading, and students who had scored highest on speed reading tests. Carver found that of his superstars, none could read faster than 600 words per minute with more than 75% retention of information.
Oh, and you know how speed reading instructions tell you not to subvocalize? Apparently that’s impossible — if you’re actually comprehending the words, you’ve gotta subvocalize.
What does work: practice.
Full Story: Skeptoid: Speed Reading
In Science, Men Are Assumed Competent Until Proven Otherwise. Women Are Assumed Incompetent Until Proven Otherwise
The Wall Street Journal on how men and women are treated differently in science. To sum it up: men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise. Women are assumed to be incompetent until proven otherwise. Sharon Begley writes:
Ben Barres had just finished giving a seminar at the prestigious Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research 10 years ago, describing to scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and other top institutions his discoveries about nerve cells called glia. As the applause died down, a friend later told him, one scientist turned to another and remarked what a great seminar it had been, adding, “Ben Barres’s work is much better than his sister’s.”
There was only one problem. Prof. Barres, then as now a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, doesn’t have a sister in science. The Barbara Barres the man remembered was Ben.
Prof. Barres is transgendered, having completed the treatments that made him fully male 10 years ago. The Whitehead talk was his first as a man, so the research he was presenting was done as Barbara.
Full Story: Wall Street Journal He, Once a She, Offers Own View On Science Spat