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

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  • June 1, 2010
  • 12:52 PM

SSRIs and Suicide

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Prozac and suicide: what's going on?Many people think that SSRI antidepressants do indeed cause suicide, and in recent years this idea has gained a huge amount of attention. My opinion is that, well, it's all rather complicated...At first glance, it seems as though it should be easy to discover the truth. SSRIs are some of the most studied drugs in the world. We have data from several hundred randomized placebo-controlled trials, totaling tens of thousands of patients. Let's just look and see wh........ Read more »

  • May 28, 2010
  • 12:13 PM

This Is Your Brain's Anti-Drug

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

What's your anti-drug? Well, it might well be hemopressin. At least, that's probably your anti-marijuana.Hemopressin is a small protein that was discovered in the brains of rodents in 2003: its name comes from the fact that it's a breakdown product of hemoglobin and that it can lower blood pressure.No-one seems to have looked to see whether hemopressin is found in humans, yet, but it seems very likely. Almost everything that's in your brain is in a mouse's brain, and vice versa.Pharmacologically........ Read more »

  • May 27, 2010
  • 12:17 PM

Do Genes Remember?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Almost all neuroscientists believe that memories are stored in the connections between neurons: synapses. Learning, then, consists of the strengthening of some synapses, the weakening of others, and maybe even the formation of entirely new ones. But a paper from Catherine Miller and colleagues suggests that changes to DNA are also involved: Cortical DNA methylation maintains remote memory.DNA is a series of bases, and fundamentally there are just four: C, A, T and G. However, the Cs and the As c........ Read more »

Miller, C., Gavin, C., White, J., Parrish, R., Honasoge, A., Yancey, C., Rivera, I., Rubio, M., Rumbaugh, G., & Sweatt, J. (2010) Cortical DNA methylation maintains remote memory. Nature Neuroscience, 13(6), 664-666. DOI: 10.1038/nn.2560  

  • May 15, 2010
  • 06:40 PM

Do It Like You Dopamine It

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic readers will know that I'm a big fan of theories. Rather than just poking around (or scanning) the brain under different conditions and seeing what happens, it's always better to have a testable hypothesis.I just found a 2007 paper by Israeli computational neuroscientists Niv et al that puts forward a very interesting theory about dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, and dopamine cells are known to fire in phasic bursts - short volleys of spikes over millisecond timescales - in........ Read more »

  • May 12, 2010
  • 12:53 PM

Happiness Is Not A Fish You Can Eat

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Wouldn't it be nice if you could improve your mental health just by eating more fish?Well, yes, it would... except for people who hate fish, who would be doomed to misery. But is it true? A new paper from Finnish researchers Suominen-Taipale et al looks at this issue: Fish Consumption and Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in Relation to Depressive Episodes: A Cross-Sectional Analysis. The results are complex, but essentially, negative.The authors looked at a large sample (total n=6,500) of Fin........ Read more »

  • May 6, 2010
  • 07:13 PM

Mice That Fight for Their Rights

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Israeli biologists Feder et al report on Selective breeding for dominant and submissive behavior in Sabra mice.Mice are social animals and like many species, they show dominance hierarchies. When they first meet, they'll often fight each other. The winner gets to be Mr (or Mrs) Big, and they enjoy first pick of the food, mating opportunities, etc - for as long as they can remain dominant.But what determines which mice become top dog... ? Feder et al show that it's partially under genetic control........ Read more »

Feder, Y., Nesher, E., Ogran, A., Kreinin, A., Malatynska, E., Yadid, G., & Pinhasov, A. (2010) Selective breeding for dominant and submissive behavior in Sabra mice. Journal of Affective Disorders. DOI: 10.1016/j.jad.2010.03.018  

  • May 2, 2010
  • 09:58 AM

Prozac and the Killer

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Uh-oh, here's a troubling paper: Effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors on motor neuron survival.According to Anderson et al,Motor neurons were challenged with fluoxetine and paroxetine at clinically relevant doses ... In fluoxetine-treated motor neurons there was ~52% cell death while in paroxetine-treated cells there was 14% cell survival.... Both SSRIs decreased cell survival in a dose-dependent manner. This study is provocative enough to call for further in vivo studies.Stan........ Read more »

Lily B Anderson,, Phaedra B Anderson,, Thea B Anderson,, Amy Bishop,, & James Anderson. (2009) Effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors on motor neuron survival. International Journal of General Medicine, 109-115. info:/

  • April 30, 2010
  • 12:28 PM

New, Voodoo-Free fMRI Technique

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

MIT brain scanners Fedorenko et al present A new method for fMRI investigations of language: Defining ROIs functionally in individual subjects. Also on the list of authors is Nancy Kanwisher, one of the feared fMRI voodoo correlations posse.The paper describes a technique for mapping out the "language areas" of the brain in individual people, not for their own sake, but as a way of improving other fMRI studies of language. That's important because while everyone's brain is organized roughly th........ Read more »

  • April 21, 2010
  • 01:50 PM

Of Yeast and Men

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Nature reports on the Dissection of genetically complex traits with extremely large pools of yeast segregants.Ehrenreich et al have a new way of mapping the genetic basis of complex traits in yeast, "complex" being what geneticists call anything which isn't controlled by one single gene. They dub their approach "Extreme QTL mapping". This suggests images of geneticists running experiments atop Everest, or perhaps collecting blood samples from lions with their bare hands, but actuallyExtreme QTL ........ Read more »

Ehrenreich IM, Torabi N, Jia Y, Kent J, Martis S, Shapiro JA, Gresham D, Caudy AA, & Kruglyak L. (2010) Dissection of genetically complex traits with extremely large pools of yeast segregants. Nature, 464(7291), 1039-42. PMID: 20393561  

  • April 19, 2010
  • 09:05 AM

Neural Correlates of Being a Total Bad-Ass

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

A new fMRI study in PLoS reports Differential Brain Activation to Angry Faces by Elite Warfighters, the elite warfighters being US Navy SEALs.SEALs are indeed pretty elite. This being a British blog, I wouldn't want to say that they're the world's elitest naval special forces unit. That's the British Special Boat Service. But they could still kill you ten times before you knew they were there (unless you're in the Special Boat Service.)Anyway, San Diego researchers Paulus et al scanned 11 SEALs........ Read more »

  • April 13, 2010
  • 03:17 PM

The Hunt for the Prozac Gene

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

One of the difficulties doctors face when prescribing antidepressants is that they're unpredictable.One person might do well on a certain drug, but the next person might get no benefit from the exact same pills. Finding the right drug for each patient is often a matter of trying different ones until one works.So a genetic test to work out whether a certain drug will help a particular person would be really useful. Not to mention really profitable for whoever patented it. Three recent papers, pub........ Read more »

Uher, R., Perroud, N., Ng, M., Hauser, J., Henigsberg, N., Maier, W., Mors, O., Placentino, A., Rietschel, M., Souery, D.... (2010) Genome-Wide Pharmacogenetics of Antidepressant Response in the GENDEP Project. American Journal of Psychiatry. DOI: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2009.09070932  

Garriock, H., Kraft, J., Shyn, S., Peters, E., Yokoyama, J., Jenkins, G., Reinalda, M., Slager, S., McGrath, P., & Hamilton, S. (2010) A Genomewide Association Study of Citalopram Response in Major Depressive Disorder. Biological Psychiatry, 67(2), 133-138. DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2009.08.029  

  • April 8, 2010
  • 04:51 PM

Social Learning in Antisocial Animals

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

In an unusual study with potentially revolutionary implications, Austrian biologists Wilkinson et al show evidence of Social learning in a non-social reptile.Social learning means learning to do something by observing others doing it, rather than by doing it yourself. Many sociable animal species, including mammals, birds and even insects, have shown the ability to learn by observing others doing things. It's often seen as a distinct form of cognition, separate to "normal" learning, which evolve........ Read more »

  • April 7, 2010
  • 09:48 AM

Why Do We Dream?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

A few months ago, I asked Why Do We Sleep?That post was about sleep researcher Jerry Siegel, who argues that sleep evolved as a state of "adaptive inactivity". According to this idea, animals sleep because otherwise we'd always be active, and constant activity is a waste of energy. Sleeping for a proportion of the time conserves calories, and also keeps us safe from nocturnal predators etc.Siegel's theory in what we might call minimalist. That's in contrast to other hypotheses which claim that s........ Read more »

  • March 31, 2010
  • 10:18 AM

Predicting Psychosis

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

"Prevention is better than cure", so they say. And in most branches of medicine, preventing diseases, or detecting early signs and treating them pre-emptively before the symptoms appear, is an important art.Not in psychiatry. At least not yet. But the prospect of predicting the onset of psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia, and of "early intervention" to try to prevent them, is a hot topic at the moment.Schizophrenia and similar illnesses usually begin with a period of months or years, general........ Read more »

Ruhrmann, S., Schultze-Lutter, F., Salokangas, R., Heinimaa, M., Linszen, D., Dingemans, P., Birchwood, M., Patterson, P., Juckel, G., Heinz, A.... (2010) Prediction of Psychosis in Adolescents and Young Adults at High Risk: Results From the Prospective European Prediction of Psychosis Study. Archives of General Psychiatry, 67(3), 241-251. DOI: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.206  

  • March 24, 2010
  • 07:27 PM

How Blind is Double-Blind?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

There's a rather timely article in the current American Journal of Psychiatry: Assuring That Double-Blind Is Blind.Generally, when the list of the authors' conflicts of interest (550 words) is nearly as long as the text of the paper (740 words), it's not a good sign, but this one isn't bad. Perlis et al remind us that if you do a double-blind placebo controlled trial:The blind may be compromised in a variety of ways, however, beginning with differences in medication taste or smell. Of partic........ Read more »

Perlis RH, Ostacher M, Fava M, Nierenberg AA, Sachs GS, & Rosenbaum JF. (2010) Assuring that double-blind is blind. The American journal of psychiatry, 167(3), 250-2. PMID: 20194487  

Moncrieff J, Wessely S, & Hardy R. (2004) Active placebos versus antidepressants for depression. Cochrane database of systematic reviews (Online). PMID: 14974002  

  • March 20, 2010
  • 04:00 PM

Absinthe Fact and Fiction

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Absinthe is a spirit. It's very strong, and very green. But is it something more?I used to think so, until I came across this paper taking a skeptical look at the history and science of the drink, Padosch et al's Absinthism a fictitious 19th century syndrome with present impactAbsinthe is prepared by crushing and dissolving the herb wormwood in unflavoured neutral alcohol and then distilling the result; other herbs and spices are added later for taste and colour.It became extremely popular in th........ Read more »

Padosch SA, Lachenmeier DW, & Kröner LU. (2006) Absinthism: a fictitious 19th century syndrome with present impact. Substance abuse treatment, prevention, and policy, 1(1), 14. PMID: 16722551  

  • March 17, 2010
  • 06:32 AM

Mmm... Food-Induced Seizures

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

In a tasty new paper, British neurologists Kate El Bouzidi et al report on the case of a woman who suffered epileptic seizures whenever she saw, or tasted, food:A 44-year-old right-handed woman was walking in the Scottish highlands. Upon unwrapping her lunch, she had a focal seizure with witnessed onset on the right side of the face and secondary generalization... She was airlifted to hospital. Three weeks later, the smell of food triggered another seizure and she was admitted to the neurology u........ Read more »

El Bouzidi K, Duncan S, Whittle IR, & Butler CR. (2010) Lesional reflex epilepsy associated with the thought of food. Neurology, 74(7), 610-2. PMID: 20157165  

  • March 15, 2010
  • 06:52 AM

How to Stop Smoking

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

1. Don't smoke.2. See 1.This is essentially what Simon Chapman and Ross MacKenzie suggest in a provocative PloS Medicine paper, The Global Research Neglect of Unassisted Smoking Cessation: Causes and Consequences.Their point is deceptively simple: there is lots of research looking at drugs and other treatments to help people quit smoking tobacco, but little attention is paid to people who quit without any help, despite the fact that the majority (up to 75%) of quitters do just that. This is good........ Read more »

  • March 10, 2010
  • 06:10 PM

Can We Rely on fMRI?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Craig Bennett (of and Michael Miller, of dead fish brain scan fame, have a new paper out: How reliable are the results from functional magnetic resonance imaging?Tal over at the [citation needed] blog has an excellent in-depth discussion of the paper, and Mind Hacks has a good summary, but here's my take on what it all means in practical terms.Suppose you scan someone's brain while they're looking at a picture of a cat. You find that certain parts of their brain are activated to ........ Read more »

Bennett CM, Miller MB. (2010) How reliable are the results from functional magnetic resonance imaging?. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. info:/

  • March 8, 2010
  • 04:45 PM

Life Without Serotonin

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Via Dormivigilia, I came across a fascinating paper about a man who suffered from a severe lack of monoamine neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin etc.) as a result of a genetic mutation: Sleep and Rhythm Consequences of a Genetically Induced Loss of SerotoninNeuroskeptic readers will be familiar with monoamines. They're psychiatrists' favourite neurotransmitters, and are hence very popular amongst psych drug manufacturers. In particular, it's widely believed that serotonin is the brain's "happ........ Read more »

Smaranda Leu-Semenescu et al. (2010) Sleep and Rhythm Consequences of a Genetically Induced Loss of Serotonin. Sleep, 33(03), 307-314. info:/

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