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Comments on neurobiology, neuroimaging, and psychiatry from a skeptical neuroscientist.

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  • April 8, 2012
  • 05:49 AM

Bigender - Boy Today, Girl Tomorrow?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

An interesting report in (believe it or not) Medical Hypotheses - Alternating gender incongruity: A new neuropsychiatric syndrome providing insight into the dynamic plasticity of brain-sex. Bigender individuals report alternating between male, female, and (sometimes) mixed gender states. Case and Ramachandran - that's V.S. Ramachandran of phantom limb fame - write:Under the transgender umbrella, a distinct subset of "Bigender" individuals report blending or alternating gender states. It came to ........ Read more »

  • April 6, 2012
  • 06:15 AM

Neurostimulation - The Genius Machine?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Do you wish you were smarter? Are you often baffled by puzzles?According to Australian neuroscientists Chi and Snyder, all you need is a bit of electric assistance: Brain stimulation enables the solution of an inherently difficult problem.In their study, 22 volunteers were faced with the 9 dots problem, a notoriously difficult puzzle. The goal here is to draw exactly four straight lines connecting all nine of these dots, without retracing any line, or lifting your pen from the page.Can you ........ Read more »

  • April 4, 2012
  • 07:03 PM

Co-Vary Or Die

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

I've just come across a striking example of why correcting for confounding variables in statistics might not sound exciting, but can be a matter of life and death.Imagine you're a doctor or researcher working with HIV/AIDS. You're taking a sample of blood from a HIV+ patient when you slip and, to your horror, jab yourself with a bloodied needle.What do you do?In a 1997 study, researchers Cardo et al studied hundreds of cases of this kind of accidental HIV exposure ("needlestick injuries") in med........ Read more »

  • March 31, 2012
  • 12:57 PM

DSM-V: A Little Mix Up

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Proposals in the upcoming DSM-V psychiatric manual for diagnosing "mixed" mood states may be muddled, according to a new paper.The mixed state - the name alluding to a mix between depression and mania - has traditionally been viewed (more or less) as combining the dysphoria of depression with the energy of mania. Anger, agitation, restlessness and so forth. I've been depressed and I know only too well the difference between that "active" depression and the "inactive" kind; if I had to choose, I'........ Read more »

  • March 29, 2012
  • 03:45 PM

3D fMRI Promises Deeper Neuroscience

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

A new approach to fMRI scanning offers a three-dimensional look at brain activation.fMRI is already a 3D technique, of course, but in the case of the cerebral cortex - which is what the great majority of neuroscientists are most interested in - the 3D data are effectively just 2D images folded up in space. The cortex can be thought of a big sheet crumpled up into the shape of a brain, and it's possible to use software to 'unfold' the cortex into a 2D map for the purposes of fMRI data visualizati........ Read more »

  • March 27, 2012
  • 02:53 PM

Broken Hearts and Broken Livers

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

In a new paper, Beyond the Blues, German psychologists Postert et al discuss how the Hmong people of South East Asia talk about sadness - or rather, how they don't, because they don't really have a word for it.Based on anthropological fieldwork in a number of Hmong communities in Laos, the focus of this article is on the Hmong term tu siab, literally "broken liver". This is usually translated as "sadness" in the dictionaries, but the authors say that, although it is certainly the closest thing t........ Read more »

  • March 23, 2012
  • 04:33 AM

The Mystery of Trephination

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Why did ancient peoples cut holes in their heads?The Woman of Pritschoena who died around 4,500 years ago in what's now Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. Her skeleton was discovered in 1913 by a local archaeologist. Thanks to being buried in a gravel pit, her remains are exceptionally well preserved.The Woman's skull is a fine example of trephination - the practice of deliberately cutting holes in the skull. The Woman was trephined twice, as you can see in the images above taken from a paper just out. In ........ Read more »

Alfieri, A., Strauss, C., Meller, H., Stoll-Tucker, B., Tacik, P., & Brandt, S. (2012) The Woman of Pritschoena: An Example of the German Neolithic Neurosurgery in Saxony-Anhalt. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 21(2), 139-146. DOI: 10.1080/0964704X.2011.575117  

  • March 21, 2012
  • 04:45 AM

Brain Scanning - Just the Tip of the Iceberg?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Neuroimaging studies may be giving us a misleading picture of the brain, according to two big papers just out.By big, I don't just mean important. Both studies made use of a much larger set of data than is usual in neuroimaging studies. Thyreau et al scanned 1,326 people. For comparison, a lot of fMRI studies have more like n=13. Gonzalez-Castillo et al, on the other hand, only had 3 people - but each one was scanned while performing the same task 500 times over.Both studies found that pretty mu........ Read more »

  • March 17, 2012
  • 08:27 AM

Personality Without Genes?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

According to a paper just published (but available online since 2010), we haven't found any genes for personality.The study was a big meta-analysis of a total of 20,000 people of European descent. In a nutshell, they found no single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) associated with any of the "Big 5" personality traits of Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. There were a couple of very tenuous hits, but they didn't replicate.Obviously, this is bad........ Read more »

de Moor, M., Costa, P., Terracciano, A., Krueger, R., de Geus, E., Toshiko, T., Penninx, B., Esko, T., Madden, P., Derringer, J.... (2010) Meta-analysis of genome-wide association studies for personality. Molecular Psychiatry, 17(3), 337-349. DOI: 10.1038/mp.2010.128  

  • March 15, 2012
  • 05:43 PM

The Blinking Brain - A Problem For fMRI?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Every time we blink, a wave of activity sweeps through our brain - and this could be a serious problem for some fMRI researchers.French neuroscientists Hupé et al report on A BOLD signature of eyeblinks in the visual cortex. They found that spontaneous blinks are associated with a neural activation pattern over the occipital cortex areas responsible for processing vision.In many ways this is not surprising - when you blink, everything goes dark, and then lights up again, all within a fraction o........ Read more »

  • March 13, 2012
  • 05:23 PM

The Age of ADHD

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Diagnosed rates of ADHD in American children have skyrocketed in the past 20 years, and use of medication such as Ritalin and Adderall has increased by an even greater amount.So says a report just out in Clinical Pediatrics, using data from the major US National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS). The rate of office based visits (i.e. visits when a doctor saw or treated a patient, outside of a hospital) was the main outcome measure. The authors looked at the number of visits reporting a diag........ Read more »

  • March 10, 2012
  • 09:22 AM

The Case of the Phantom Phantom Finger

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

A "phantom limb" is the sensation that an amputated limb (or other body part) is still present.They can be distressing, especially when they're accompanied by pain in the "limb" which is not uncommon. The leading theory of why they happen is that the brain areas that used to receive sensations from the lost appendage respond to input "spilling over" from nearby brain regions.Anyway, a phantom limb is bad enough, but a paper just out reports on the case of a phantom finger that was never there in........ Read more »

  • March 7, 2012
  • 04:09 PM

Ketamine - Magic Antidepressant, or Expensive Illusion?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Not one but two new papers have appeared from the Carlos Zarate group at NIMH reporting that a single injection of the drug ketamine has rapid, powerful antidepressant effects.One placebo-controlled study found a benefit in depressed bipolar patients who were already on mood stabilizers. The other found benefits in treatment-resistant major depression, though ketamine wasn't compared to placebo that time. Here's the bipolar trial: There have now been several studies finding dramatic antidepressa........ Read more »

  • March 6, 2012
  • 04:03 AM

Free Will: A Dangerous Idea?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

The British Journal of Social Psychology has published a fiery rebuke to psychologists who argue that belief in free will makes people more ethical.Recent much-publicized studies have claimed that scepticism about free will makes people behave less morally. "Disbelief in Free Will Increases Aggression and Reduces Helpfulness" as the title of one of hese papers puts it.In his article (free pdf), British 'independent researcher' James B. Miles says that these experiments are flawed, because they d........ Read more »

  • March 3, 2012
  • 08:41 AM

The World Mental Health Missionaries?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Is research on the global distribution of mental health problems a kind of modern-day missionary work?Maybe, says Australia's Dr Stephen Rosenman in a provocative paper: Cause for caution: culture,sensitivity and the World Mental Health Survey Initiative.The World Mental Health Survey (WMHS) is a huge World Health Organization project that aims to measure the rates of various psychiatric disorders in countries around the world. The WMHS has produced a great deal of data, but Rosenman points out ........ Read more »

  • February 29, 2012
  • 03:35 AM

Bringing the Real World into Brain Scanning

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Canadian Neuroscientists Jacqueline Snow et al propose a new method of making brain scanning studies a bit more realistic.Typically, in an fMRI or other neuroimaging study, any visual stimuli shown to the volunteer are just pictures on a screen. Sometimes videos will be used, but in almost all cases they're just 2D images. Is that adaquate? People have hoped so.Snow et al's data suggest that it might not be.They created a contraption for presenting subjects with real objects during a scan. See a........ Read more »

  • February 23, 2012
  • 03:32 AM

Beware Reverse Publication Bias

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

In all the fuss over the pressure for scientists to publish positive results, we may have been missing an equally dangerous kind of publication bias operating in the opposite direction.So say Luijendijk and Koolman in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology: The incentive to publish negative studies: how beta-blockers and depression got stuck in the publication cycle.The background here is the possible link between beta blockers and depression. Beta blockers are drugs widely used to treat high bloo........ Read more »

  • February 21, 2012
  • 03:11 AM

The Stigma(s) of Mental Illness

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Fighting "the stigma of mental illness" is big business at the moment. But does "the stigma" really exist?As I said back in 2010 :There is a stigma of schizophrenia, and there's a stigma of depression, etc. but they're not the same stigma. We're told it's a myth that "the mentally ill are violent" - [but] no-one thinks depressed or anorexic people are violent. They think (roughly) that people with psychosis are. They have other equally silly opinions about each diagnosis, but there's no monolith........ Read more »

  • February 19, 2012
  • 10:54 AM

A Correction

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

In my previous post, on the paper A Facial Attractiveness Account of Gender Asymmetries in Interracial Marriage by Michael B. Lewis, I wrongly stated that it was unclear from the paper whether the research assistant who selected the Facebook images was blind to the hypothesis of the study.In fact, the paper did state that they were "a naive research assistant", something I missed. Apologies for this avoidable mistake. I've corrected the post.I'd also like to take this opportunity to remind every........ Read more »

  • February 18, 2012
  • 05:22 AM

The Evolutionary Psychology of Race, Beauty and Marriage

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

There are some papers that you can tell are going to be hot potatoes just from the titles. This is one of them: A Facial Attractiveness Account of Gender Asymmetries in Interracial Marriage.Coming so soon after The Unconquered World, you'd be forgiven for thinking I am taking this blog in a more linkbaiting direction because I'm planning to introduce ads. I'm really not, it's just a coincidence.The paper claims that white women are on average more attractive than black, while East Asians are pre........ Read more »

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