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

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  • December 22, 2011
  • 06:20 AM

An Objective Measure of Consciousness...?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Could a puff of air in the eye offer a way to evaluate whether someone is conscious or not?Yes it could, say Cambridge's Tristan Bekinschtein and colleagues in a new paper about Sea slugs, subliminal pictures, and vegetative state patients.It's all about classical conditioning of the kind made famous by Pavlov. This is learning caused by the pairing of two stimuli, one of them unpleasant. So if I were to ring a little bell before, say, pepper spraying you, and I did that repeatedly, you would pr........ Read more »

  • December 17, 2011
  • 06:27 AM

Young, Canadian and on Antipsychotics

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Antipsychotic use in Canadian children and teens is rising dramatically - prescriptions more than doubled in just 4 years, from 2005 to 2009.That's according to a paper just out from Pringsheim et al. It's been known for a while that the same is true of the USA. The data reveal that the Canadian border is no barrier to the spread of antipsychotics.What's surprising is that while in the USA, some of these drugs are officially licensed for use in certain children and adolescent psychiatric disorde........ Read more »

  • December 15, 2011
  • 03:54 AM

"Mad Honey" Sex Is A Bad Idea

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

A cautionary tale from Turkey - do not eat poison honey to try to spice up your sex life. "Mad honey" is honey made by bees from the nectar of toxic Rhododendron flowers. In places where wild Rhododendrons grow, including Turkey, it's a health hazard. The dangers of mad honey were known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, and it's reported that leaving tainted honeycombs in the path of invading armies was a popular military tactic.2000 years later, some people still haven't quite got the message. ........ Read more »

Mikail Yarlioglues et al. (2011) Mad-Honey Sexual Activity and Acute Inferior Myocardial Infarctions in a Married Couple. Texas Heart Institute Journal. info:/

  • December 13, 2011
  • 04:08 AM

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Here's a paper - soon to appear in Psychological Science - which says that Most Reported Genetic Associations with General Intelligence Are Probably False PositivesThe authors tried to replicate published associations between particular genetic variants (SNPs) and IQ (specifically the g factor). They looked at three datasets, a total of about 10,000 people, and didn't confirm any of the 12 associations.As Razib Khan says in his post on this, "My hunch is that these results will be unsatisfying t........ Read more »

Chabris, C. F. et al. (2011) Most Reported Genetic Associations with General Intelligence Are Probably False Positives . Psychological Science. info:/

  • December 11, 2011
  • 08:58 AM

Do Antidepressants Make Some People Worse?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Antidepressants may help depression in some people but make it worse for others, according to a new paper.This is a tough one so bear with me.Gueorguieva, Mallinckrodt and Krystal re-analysed the data from a number of trials of duloxetine (Cymbalta) vs placebo. Most of the trials also had another antidepressant (an SSRI) as well. And the SSRIs and duloxetine seemed to be indistinguishable so from now on I'll just call it antidepressants vs. placebo as the authors did.People on placebo got, on av........ Read more »

  • December 9, 2011
  • 09:51 AM

The Brain's High School Spot

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

It's been known for a long time that electrical stimulation of the brain's temporal lobe can sometimes evoke vivid memories.The famous neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield first noticed this effect as part of his pioneering stimulation experiments, but he believed that it was both uncommon and haphazard with any given stimulation able to evoke any memory, more or less at random.A new paper, however, says different. Philadelphia's Joshua Jacobs et al report that they found a spot in the left temporal lob........ Read more »

Jacobs J, Lega B, & Anderson C. (2011) Explaining How Brain Stimulation Can Evoke Memories. Journal of cognitive neuroscience. PMID: 22098266  

  • December 7, 2011
  • 04:35 AM

Scientific Databases - or Filters?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

A new online database called AutismKB offers a quick way to find the evidence linking genes to autism.You can read up on it in a paper describing the project.You can browse by chromosome or gene name, it includes data on all kinds of genetic variants from SNPs to CNVs and it gives each variant a score according to the strength of the evidence. I haven't had a chance to really tell how useful these scores are, but there's an option to create your own score based on how much weight you give differ........ Read more »

Xu LM, Li JR, Huang Y, Zhao M, Tang X, & Wei L. (2011) AutismKB: an evidence-based knowledgebase of autism genetics. Nucleic acids research. PMID: 22139918  

  • December 6, 2011
  • 01:43 PM

The Network of Mental Illness

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

A provocative but problematic paper just out offers a new perspective on psychiatric symptoms.The basic idea is that rather than psychiatric disorders being entities, they are just bundles of symptoms which cause each other: ...symptoms are unlikely to be merely passive psychometric indicators of latent conditions; rather, they indicate properties with autonomous causal relevance. That is, when symptoms arise, they can cause other symptoms on their own. For instance, among the symptoms of MDE we........ Read more »

Borsboom D, Cramer AO, Schmittmann VD, Epskamp S, & Waldorp LJ. (2011) The small world of psychopathology. PloS one, 6(11). PMID: 22114671  

  • December 3, 2011
  • 09:34 AM

A Psychedelic Tale of Two Neurotransmitters

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

An unexpected interaction between neurotransmitter systems may explain psychosis and hallucinations, according to a fascinating new paper.Serotonin (5HT) and glutamate are two neurotransmitters. Up until now, it was thought that they acted independently. A given neuron might have receptors for both serotonin and glutamate, but they didn't interact: serotonin would never affect the glutamate receptors, and vice versa.The new research overturns that view. Authors Miguel Fribourg and colleagues of........ Read more »

  • November 29, 2011
  • 06:14 AM

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy vs. Psychoanalysis

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Clinical trials of cognitive behavioural psychotherapy (CBT) for depression are often of poor quality - and are no better than trials of the rival psychodynamic school.So says a new American Journal of Psychiatry paper that could prove controversial.CBT is widely perceived as having a better evidence base than other therapies. The "creation myth" of CBT (at least as I was taught it) is that it was invented by a psychoanalyst who got annoyed at the unscientific nature of psychodynamic i.e. Freudi........ Read more »

Nathan C. Thoma et al. (2011) A Quality-Based Review of Randomized Controlled Trials of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Depression: An Assessment and Metaregression. American Journal of Psychiatry. info:/

  • November 26, 2011
  • 10:52 AM

Beware Dead Fish Statistics

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

An editorial in the Journal of Physiology offers some important notes on statistics.But even more importantly, it refers to a certain blog in the process:The Student’s t-test merely quantifies the ‘Lack of support’ for no effect. It is left to the user of the test to decide how convincing this lack might be. A further difficulty is evident in the repeated samples we show in Figure 2: one of those samples was quite improbable because the P-value was 0.03, which suggests a substantial lack o........ Read more »

  • November 25, 2011
  • 05:25 AM

A Dangerous Truth about Antidepressants

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

An opinion piece by veteran psychiatrist and antidepressant drug researcher Sheldon Preskorn contains a remarkable historical note -“A dangerous idea!” That was the response after a presentation I gave to a small group of academic leaders with an interest in psychopharmacology [over 15 years ago].What evoked such a response? The acknowledgment that most currently available antidepressants specifically treat only one out of four patients with major depression based on the bulk of clinical tri........ Read more »

  • November 24, 2011
  • 04:01 AM

The Gene That's "For" Nothing

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Scientists like to warn you not to talk about "the gene for" a particular disease or trait.I've done so in previous posts e.g. this one or this one.But such scalding is not always very effective. We like simple explanations, so we like to find simple connections between genes and phenotypes.Which is why a new paper is important. The authors, a large Turkish-American collaboration, found that mutations in a gene, WDR62, are associated with severe brain malformations in 9 patients. But what's inte........ Read more »

Bilgüvar K, Oztürk AK, Louvi A, Kwan KY, Choi M, Tatli B, Yalnizoğlu D, Tüysüz B, Cağlayan AO, Gökben S.... (2010) Whole-exome sequencing identifies recessive WDR62 mutations in severe brain malformations. Nature, 467(7312), 207-10. PMID: 20729831  

  • November 22, 2011
  • 04:06 AM

Was Evita Lobotomized?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Eva Peron, or Evita, is perhaps the most famous woman in Latin American history. As the wife of Argentinian leader Juan Peron she was immensely popular. But she died at the age of just 33 from cervical cancer, after a two year struggle with the disease.A new paper makes the startling claim that Eva Peron may have received a prefrontal lobotomy in the months before her death. The lobotomy is best known as a treatment for mental disorders such as schizophrenia, but according to Nijensohn et al, Pe........ Read more »

  • November 20, 2011
  • 09:44 AM

Potential Personal Genomics

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

A while ago I wrote about how new findings in genetics could herald a new kind of "eugenics", based not around selective breeding to ensure that "bad" genes aren't passed on, but rather based on using fetal genetic testing to choose which variants enter the gene pool in the first place.I said-In the near future, we might be able to routinely sequence the genome of any unborn child shortly after conceptionBut I didn't realize that this may be really very near indeed. Two recent reports have shown........ Read more »

Peters D, Chu T, Yatsenko SA, Hendrix N, Hogge WA, Surti U, Bunce K, Dunkel M, Shaw P, & Rajkovic A. (2011) Noninvasive prenatal diagnosis of a fetal microdeletion syndrome. The New England journal of medicine, 365(19), 1847-8. PMID: 22070496  

Srebniak M, Boter M, Oudesluijs G, Joosten M, Govaerts L, Van Opstal D, & Galjaard RJ. (2011) Application of SNP array for rapid prenatal diagnosis: implementation, genetic counselling and diagnostic flow. European journal of human genetics : EJHG, 19(12), 1230-7. PMID: 21694736  

  • November 18, 2011
  • 04:49 AM

Does MRI Make You Happy?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

A startling new paper from Tehran claims Antidepressant effects of magnetic resonance imaging-based stimulation on major depressive disorder.Yes, this study says that having an MRI scan has a powerful antidepressant effect.They took 51 depressed patients, and gave them all either an MRI scan or a placebo sham scan. The sham was a "scan" in a decommissioned scanner. The magnet was off but they played recorded scannerish sounds to make it believable. Patients were blinded to group.They found that ........ Read more »

  • November 14, 2011
  • 05:07 PM

Modern War-fMRI : Graphics Cards for Science

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Videogames and neuroscience have a rocky relationship.On the one hand you have Susan Greenfield and her games-hurt-the-brain theory. But she's not representative of neuroscientists as a whole: games have also helped neuroscience, for example, in this study of the neural correlates of "flow" experiences. Now neuroscientists have another reason to be thankful for games, according to a new paper. It turns out that modern 3D graphics cards - which mostly exist in order to render videogame visuals - ........ Read more »

  • November 12, 2011
  • 08:27 AM

Autism: What A Big Prefrontal Cortex You Have

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

A new paper has caused a lot of excitement: it reports large increases in the number of neurons in children with autism. It comes to you from veteran autism researcher Eric Courchesne. Courchesne et al counted the number of cells in the prefrontal cortex of 7 boys with autism and 6 non-autistic control boys, aged 2-16 years old. The analysis was performed by a neuropathologist who was blind to the theory behind the study and to which brains were from which group. That's good.They found that the ........ Read more »

Courchesne E, Mouton PR, Calhoun ME, Semendeferi K, Ahrens-Barbeau C, Hallet MJ, Barnes CC, & Pierce K. (2011) Neuron number and size in prefrontal cortex of children with autism. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association, 306(18), 2001-10. PMID: 22068992  

  • November 11, 2011
  • 03:27 AM

Another Antidepressant Bites The Dust

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Yet another up-and-coming antidepressant has flopped.A paper just out reveals that the snappily-named GSK372475 doesn't work and has lots of side effects. It's a report of two clinicals trials in which Glaxo's contender was pitched against placebo and against older antidepressants in the treatment of depression.GSK372475 failed to improve depression any better than placebo, even though the trials were large (393 and 504 patients respectively) and twice as long as most antidepressant trials (10 w........ Read more »

  • November 9, 2011
  • 04:07 AM

The Transexual Brain

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

According to a new paper, the brains of male-to-female transexuals are no more "female" than those of men.The authors write that "The present data do not support the notion that brains of male-to-female transexuals are feminized" and conclude "The present study does not support the dogma that male-to-female transexuals have atypical sex dimorphism in the brain".That last sentence has gained quite a bit of coverage, including a quote on the Wikipedia page for "transgender". But is it so simple?S........ Read more »

Savic I, & Arver S. (2011) Sex dimorphism of the brain in male-to-female transsexuals. Cerebral cortex (New York, N.Y. : 1991), 21(11), 2525-33. PMID: 21467211  

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