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

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  • February 14, 2012
  • 03:37 AM

Tired Brains Are More Excitable

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

An important new study shows how being awake causes progressive changes to the brain. This could shed light on the function of sleep - but it also raises warnings for neuroscientists.Italian researchers Huber et al report that Human Cortical Excitability Increases with Time Awake. The experiment was conceptually simple - they measured cortical excitability when people were well rested and then looked to see how it changed as they were kept awake for over 24 hours.The participants woke up at 7 am........ Read more »

Huber, R., Maki, H., Rosanova, M., Casarotto, S., Canali, P., Casali, A., Tononi, G., & Massimini, M. (2012) Human Cortical Excitability Increases with Time Awake. Cerebral Cortex. DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhs014  

  • February 10, 2012
  • 04:40 AM

Good Science, Bad History, in the British Journal of Psychiatry

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

The latest February 2012 issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry features a paper about the association between child abuse and later mental health problems. I haven't read it yet, but it looks pretty good.However, it also includes an editorial from John Read and Richard Bentall which argues that: Just 20 years ago, however, it would have been difficult to get the paper published. Mental health professions have been slow, even resistant, to recognise the role of childhood adversities in psych........ Read more »

  • February 8, 2012
  • 04:33 AM

Visualizing The Connected Brain

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

So it seems as though the "connectome" is the latest big thing in neuroscience. This is the brain's wiring diagram, in terms of the connections between neurons and on a larger scale, between brain regions.We certainly won't understand the brain without getting to grips with the connections but equally, it's not the whole story. I previously emphasised that the brain is not made of soup; it's not made of spaghetti, either.Connectomics does however unquestionably provide some of the prettiest imag........ Read more »

  • February 5, 2012
  • 05:32 AM

Psychiatry's True Blood? Pt 1.

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Imagine that there was a blood test that could detect depression. Wouldn't that be useful?It depends.Ridge Diagnostics are a US company who offer such a test. They've just published some results of the technology in Molecular Psychiatry. In two samples of patients with major depressive disorder (MDD), they report differences in the"MDDScore", between the patients and healthy controls.The MDDScore is an aggregate value, calculated from the levels of 9 metabolites in blood serum. They're all well-........ Read more »

  • February 2, 2012
  • 03:22 AM

Science Majors are from Mars...

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

According to a new study, students with a family history of autism tend to major in math and science, while substance abuse and depression are more common in the ancestors of humanities fans.In an online survey, over 1,000 new Princeton undergrads were asked about their intended major and whether anyone in their family had been diagnosed with one of 16 neurological and psychiatric disorders. More details here.Of the 16 maladies, 5 were so rare that there wasn't enough data to analyze. Of the rem........ Read more »

  • January 31, 2012
  • 04:29 AM

Voodoo Neuroscience Revisited

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Two years ago, neuroscientists were shaken by the appearance of a draft paper showing that half of the published work in a particular field had fallen prey to a major statistical error.Originally called "Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience", it ended up with the less snappy name of Puzzlingly high correlations in fMRI studies of emotion, personality, and social cognition. I prefer the old title.The error in question is now known variously as the "circular analysis problem", "non-independe........ Read more »

  • January 26, 2012
  • 04:02 AM

Take Your Placebos, Or Die

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

People who take their medication as directed are less likely to die - even when that "medication" is just a sugar pill.This is the surprising finding of a paper just published, Adherence to placebo and mortality in the Beta Blocker Evaluation of Survival Trial (BEST).BEST was a clinical trial of beta blockers, drugs used in certain kinds of heart disease. The patients were aged about 60 and they all suffered from heart failure. Everyone was randomly assigned to get a beta blocker or placebo, the........ Read more »

  • January 25, 2012
  • 04:59 AM

The Hidden Face Within

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

One of these two images contains a hidden picture of a face. Which one?This was the question faced by participants in a remarkable psychology experiment just published, Measuring Internal Representations from Behavioral and Brain Data. Five healthy volunteers were presented with a series of random black and white grid patterns. Each grid square was either black or white, and this was randomly determined on each trial.There was no pattern to the images, they were completely random. But the subjec........ Read more »

  • January 21, 2012
  • 01:23 PM

The Trojan Horses of Medicine

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Dodgy science is being smuggled into medical journals thanks to a loophole in the regulations, say Italian psychiatrists Barbui and Cipriani in an important article.They focus on agomelatine, a recently-approved antidepressant. But their point applies to all of medicine, not just psychiatry.Here's the problem. Nowadays, major medical journals have rules governing systematic reviews and meta-analyses of clinical trial data. If you want to review the evidence about how well a certain drug works, o........ Read more »

  • January 20, 2012
  • 02:31 PM

The Age (Cohort) of Autism

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

New data shed light on the recent mysterious rise in the number of kids being diagnosed with autism.The new research doesn't explain the increase, but it tells us more about it. It shows that the rise in Californian autism diagnoses (reported to the state DDS) over the period 1996 to 2005 was a cohort effect, meaning that the rates of diagnosis have got higher, the later a child was born.A child who's 10 today (born 2002) has double of the chance of having a recorded diagnosis compared to a 14-y........ Read more »

  • January 19, 2012
  • 04:33 AM

Challenging the Antidepressant Severity Dogma?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Regular readers will be familiar with the idea that "antidepressants only work in severe depression".A number of recent studies have shown this. I've noted some important questions over how we ought to define "severe" in this context, and see the comments here for some other caveats, but I'm not aware of any studies that directly contradict this idea.Until now. A new paper has just come out which seeks to challenge this dogma - not the author's term, but I think it's fair to say that the severit........ Read more »

Stewart, J., Deliyannides, D., Hellerstein, D., McGrath, P., & Stewart, J. (2011) Can People With Nonsevere Major Depression Benefit From Antidepressant Medication?. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. DOI: 10.4088/JCP.10m06760  

  • January 13, 2012
  • 04:02 AM

Dolphins who Dream of Whales

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Once in a while you come across a paper that can only be described as lovely. This is one: Do dolphins rehearse show-stimuli when at rest?Five dolphins lived in a certain aquarium in France. Every day, they put on shows for people - jumping around, that kind of thing. One day the aquarium started playing a 20-minute clip of "intro music" for the show. This consisted of various oceanic sounds including sea birds, dolphin noises and some whale-song.What happened next was amazing. About a month abo........ Read more »

  • January 11, 2012
  • 04:40 PM

Do Brain Scans Sway Juries?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Does seeing a criminal's brain affect jury decisions?Edith Greene and Brian Cahill ask this question in a new study which put volunteers in the position of jurors in a murder trial. The 'defendant' was guilty, but the question was: should they get life in prison, or death?It turned out that seeing brain scans didn't have much of an effect - but it's not clear how far the results would generalize.208 mock-jurors were randomly assigned to get different kinds of mitigationinformation about the accu........ Read more »

  • January 10, 2012
  • 03:58 PM

The Plight of Psychoanalysis?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

A New York psychoanalyst reveals her concerns about the profession in A Letter to Freud: On the Plight of PsychoanalysisDinah M. Mendes's letter covers several topics, but I was struck by the sections that deal with the contemporary challenges facing American analysts. She paints a rather sad picture of analysts who spend years in training, only to find a shortage of people out there who want their treatment:At psychoanalytic training institutes it is often difficult for candidates to secure con........ Read more »

  • January 9, 2012
  • 11:53 AM

Men and Women - Alien Personalities?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

How different are men and women? Are they from two different planets?In the cleverly-titled The Distance Between Mars and Venus, the authors argue that personality-wise, the differences between men and women have been underestimated by previous studies because they used simplistic statistics.Traditional studies of gender and personality have given some men and some women a personality quiz, and calculated the average male and female scores on the different aspects of personality.When you do this........ Read more »

  • January 4, 2012
  • 04:04 PM

Hot Sex Prevents Breast Cancer

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Breast cancer is caused by sexual frustration. Women should ditch their unsexy husbands and find a real man to satisfy them if they want to reduce the risk of the disease. That's according to An Essay on Sexual Frustration as the Cause of Breast Cancer in Women: How Correlations and Cultural Blind Spots Conceal Causal Effects, a piece that was published today in The Breast Journal.Really -Endocrinological processes are important targets in breast cancer research. These processes are also importa........ Read more »

  • January 3, 2012
  • 05:40 PM

Antidepressants: Bad Drugs... Or Bad Patients?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Why is it that modern trials of antidepressant drugs increasingly show no benefit of the drugs over placebo? This is the question asked by Cornell psychiatrists Brody et al in an American Journal of Psychiatry opinion piece.They suggest that maybe it's the patients fault:Participation that is induced by cash payments may lead subjects to exaggerate their symptoms [i.e. in order to get included into the trial]... Another contributing factor to high placebo response rates may be the extent to whic........ Read more »

  • January 2, 2012
  • 07:36 AM

What're You Lookin' At (When You Dream)?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Why do our eyes move during sleep?Here at Neuroskeptic we've already asked why do we sleep? and why do we dream? There are plenty of theories, but no clear answers to either of those questions.We don't even know the function of one of the most famous sleep phenomena, rapid eye movements (REMs). It's been known for decades that during certain phases of sleep, the eyes show a pattern of rapid flickering movements, and that this REM sleep is when most (but not all) dreams occur.But what are the eye........ Read more »

  • December 30, 2011
  • 09:04 AM

How Realistic is fMRI?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

How representative are fMRI experiments? Is "the brain" that we investigate with fMRI the same brain that we use outside the MRI scanner?A new paper from Bernhard Hommel and colleagues of Leiden in the Netherlands offers some important caveats. They looked to see what effect playing some recorded MRI scanner sounds had on people's ability to perform some simple cognitive tasks, while sitting outside the scanner.MRI is notoriously noisy. When you have an MRI scan you have to wear earplugs to prot........ Read more »

Hommel, B., Fischer, R., Colzato, L., van den Wildenberg, W., & Cellini, C. (2011) The effect of fMRI (noise) on cognitive control. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. DOI: 10.1037/a0026353  

  • December 27, 2011
  • 12:00 PM

Scanning The Brain While Looking At Scans

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

A new study investigated what goes on in the brain when doctors make a diagnosis.Radiologists use X-rays and other imaging techniques to diagnose diseases - but in this study, they went into the scanner themselves. Brazilian researchers Marcio Melo et al used fMRI to record neural activity while the radiologists were shown an array of chest X-rays.Some of the scans showed evidence of disease, which the doctors were required to diagnose. There were also two control conditions, in which the stimul........ Read more »

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