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

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  • February 22, 2009
  • 09:17 AM

How To Read Minds

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

In the last couple of weeks we've seen not one but two reports about "reading minds" through brain imaging. First, two Canadian scientists claimed to be able to tell which flavor of drink you prefer (Decoding subjective preference from single-trial near-infrared spectroscopy signals). Then a pair of Nashville neuroimagers said that they could tell which of two pictures you were thinking about through fMRI (Decoding reveals the contents of visual working memory in early visual areas); you can rea........ Read more »

  • February 15, 2009
  • 04:29 PM

Ecstasy vs. Horseriding

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Which is more dangerous, taking ecstasy or riding a horse?This is the question that got Professor David Nutt, a British psychiatrist, into a spot of political bother. Nutt is the Editor of the academic Journal of Psychopharmacology. He recently published a brief and provocative editorial called "Equasy".Equasy is a fun read with a serious message. (It's open access so you can read the whole thing - I recommend it.) Nutt points out that the way in which we think about the harms of illegal drugs, ........ Read more »

  • February 11, 2009
  • 05:39 AM

What's the Best Antidepressant?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

It's escitalopram (Lexapro aka Cipralex) - hurrah! That is if you believe a meta-analysis just published in The Lancet. Should you believe it? The Lancet's a highly-regarded journal. However, this paper certainly bears a close reading.The question of whether any antidepressant works "better" than any other is an old one. There are many who hold that all antidepressants are pretty much equal. Then again, there are people who deny that they really work at all. If you think about it, it would be pr........ Read more »

  • February 4, 2009
  • 11:43 AM

"Voodoo Correlations" in fMRI - Whose voodoo?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

It's the paper that needs little introduction - Ed Vul et. al.'s "Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience". If you haven't already heard about it, read the Neurocritic's summary here or the summary at BPS research digest here. Ed Vul's personal page has some interesting further information here.Few neuroscience papers have been discussed so widely, so quickly, as this one. (Nature, New Scientist, Newsweek, Scientific American have all covered it.) Sadly, both new and old media commentators se........ Read more »

Edward Vul, Christine Harris, Piotr Winkielman, Harold Pashler. (2008) Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience. Perspectives on Psychological Science. DOI:  

Edward Vul, Christine Harris, Piotr Winkielman, Harold Pashler. (2008) Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience. Perspectives on Psychological Science. DOI:  

  • February 1, 2009
  • 12:35 PM

Lies, Libel and Love Detection

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Via Mind Hacks, we learn about the case of Francisco Lacerda, a University of Stockholm academic who's been threatened with legal action by the sinister-sounding Nemesysco company. Nemesysco sell software which, they claim, can detect deception and emotions by analyzing the sound of people's voices - lie detection, in other words. (In fact it turns out that it can also be used to detect love, or at least, so they say - see below...)The legal dispute surrounds a 2007 paper authored by Lacerda and........ Read more »

Anders Eriksson, & Francisco Lacerda. (2008) Charlatanry in forensic speech science: A problem to be taken seriously. International Journal of Speech Language and the Law, 14(2). DOI: 10.1558/ijsll.2007.14.2.169  

  • January 30, 2009
  • 03:10 PM

Will Coffee Crack your Chromosomes?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Bloggers were amused by the Daily Mail's latest crap science article - a scary cancer story about research that hadn't even been done yet. The article is about a study to be conducted by University of Leicester scientists, which will investigate whether coffee intake by pregnant women is correlated with DNA changes in babies, similar to those seen in leukemia. In other words: coffee-drinking might be associated with some molecular changes which might point to a risk of leukemia. We should ban th........ Read more »

S Dambrosio. (1994) Evaluation of the Genotoxicity Data on Caffeine. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, 19(3), 243-281. DOI: 10.1006/rtph.1994.1023  

  • January 24, 2009
  • 03:38 PM

The British are Incredibly Sad

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Or so says Oliver James(*) on this BBC radio show in which he also says things like "I absolutely embraces the credit crunch with both arms".Oliver James is a British psychologist best known for his theory of "Affluenza". This is his term for unhappiness and mental illness caused, he thinks, by an obsession with money, status and possessions. Affluenza, James thinks, is especially prevanlent in English-speaking countries, because we're more into free-market capitalism than the people of mainland........ Read more »

  • January 22, 2009
  • 11:42 AM

Autism, Testosterone and Eugenics

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

The media's all too often shabby treatment of neuroscience and psychology research doesn't just propagate bad science - it means that the really interesting and important bits go unreported. This is what's just happened with the controversy surrounding a paper from the Autism Research Center (ARC) at Cambridge University - Bonnie Aeyeung et. al.'s Fetal Testosterone and Autistic Traits. For research published in a journal with an impact factor of 1.538 (i.e. not good), it's certainly attracted p........ Read more »

Bonnie Auyeung, Simon Baron-Cohen, Emma Ashwin, Rebecca Knickmeyer, Kevin Taylor, & Gerald Hackett. (2009) Fetal testosterone and autistic traits. British Journal of Psychology, 100(1), 1-22. DOI: 10.1348/000712608X311731  

  • January 20, 2009
  • 11:16 AM

Prozac and Old Mice

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

A while back, I wrote about an important paper which cast doubt on the "neurogenesis hypothesis" of antidepressant drug action, which I summarized as...the proposal that antidepressants work by promoting the survival and proliferation of new neurones in certain areas of the brain - the "neurogenesis hypothesis". Neurogenesis, the birth of new cells from stem cells, occurs in a couple of very specific regions of the adult brain, including the elaborately named subgranular zone (SGZ) of the dentat........ Read more »

S Couillard-Despres, C Wuertinger, M Kandasamy, M Caioni, K Stadler, R Aigner, U Bogdahn, & L Aigner. (2009) Ageing abolishes the effects of fluoxetine on neurogenesis. Molecular Psychiatry. DOI: 10.1038/mp.2008.147  

  • January 16, 2009
  • 06:35 PM

NOS1 - An Impulsivity Gene?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic has warned before of the pitfalls of candidate gene association studies. With small sample sizes and multiple comparisons, false positive results are all too common, especially in behavioural genetics. Yet it's not all bad. The renowned Klaus-Peter Lesch and colleagues have just produced a paper which is a cut above the rest. They report on an association between a promoter region polymorphism in the gene NOS1 and "impulsive" traits.NOS1 codes for the enzyme nitric oxide synthase 1,........ Read more »

Andreas Reif, MD; Christian P. Jacob, MD; Dan Rujescu, MD; Sabine Herterich, PhD; Sebastian Lang, MD;, Lise Gutknecht, PhD; Christina G. Baehne, Dipl-Psych; Alexander Strobel, PhD; Christine M. Freitag, MD;, Ina Giegling, MD; Marcel Romanos, MD; Annette Hartmann, MD; Michael Rösler, MD; Tobias J. Renner, MD;, & Andreas J. Fallgatter, MD; Wolfgang Retz, MD; Ann-Christine Ehlis, PhD; Klaus-Peter Lesch, MD. (2009) Influence of Functional Variant of Neuronal Nitric Oxide Synthase on Impulsive Behaviors in Humans. Archives of General Psychiatry, 66(1), 41-50. DOI:  

  • January 16, 2009
  • 02:31 PM

Lessons from the Placebo Gene

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Update: See also Lessons from the Video Game BrainThe Journal of Neuroscience has published a Swedish study which, according to New Scientist (and the rest) is something of a breakthrough:First 'Placebo Gene' DiscoveredI rather like the idea of a dummy gene made of sugar, or perhaps a gene for being Brian Moloko, but what they're referring to is a gene, TPH2, which allegedly determines susceptibility to the placebo effect. Interesting, if true. Genetic Future was skeptical of the study because o........ Read more »

T. Furmark, L. Appel, S. Henningsson, F. Ahs, V. Faria, C. Linnman, A. Pissiota, O. Frans, M. Bani, P. Bettica.... (2008) A Link between Serotonin-Related Gene Polymorphisms, Amygdala Activity, and Placebo-Induced Relief from Social Anxiety. Journal of Neuroscience, 28(49), 13066-13074. DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2534-08.2008  

  • January 16, 2009
  • 02:30 PM

Serotonin! What Is It Good For?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Absolutely nothing...? Not quite, but it may be good for a lot less than anyone thought. At least according to a recent paper in PLoS One describing what happens to mice given genetic knockout which left them almost completely unable to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin (5HT).The mice lacked either one, or both, of two genes called TPH1 and TPH2, which code for two related enzymes called tryptophan hydroxylase-1 and tryptophan hydroxylase-2. These are necessary for the production of serot........ Read more »

  • January 16, 2009
  • 02:30 PM

A Gene for Power-Line Leukemia?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Some people believe that living near high-voltage power lines raises the risk of childhood cancer. Most people are skeptical. A Chinese group have just published a paper in the journal Leukemia and Lymphoma, claiming that a genetic polymorphism in the XRCC1 gene, which has been previously linked to various cancers, raises the risk of electromagnetic field (EMF)-related leukemia. People who believe in EMF-related leukemia are happy. The Daily Mail report on this study quoting no less than three s........ Read more »

  • January 15, 2009
  • 12:29 PM

No ventral prefrontal cortex? No problem!

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Brain damage - it's not much fun when it's your brain, but for science, it's often good news. While neuroimaging can find the neural correlates of mental processes - areas of the brain which become active during the experience of an emotion, say - lesion studies are often necessary to establish the direction of causality. Just because somewhere in the brain is activated during the experience of fear, for example, doesn't mean that this area is responsible for our feelings of fright; it might jus........ Read more »

M. Koenigs, E. D. Huey, M. Calamia, V. Raymont, D. Tranel, & J. Grafman. (2008) Distinct Regions of Prefrontal Cortex Mediate Resistance and Vulnerability to Depression. Journal of Neuroscience, 28(47), 12341-12348. DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2324-08.2008  

  • January 13, 2009
  • 06:55 PM

Mice, Math and Drugs: On Science without Understanding

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

The latest issue of Neuropsychopharmacology is chock full of goodies - not only one of the first ever controlled trials of medical marijuana, but also a surprise gem from an American-Israeli collaboration, called A Data Mining Approach to In Vivo Classification of Psychopharmacological Drugs. Yet despite being an excellent paper, it raises some worrying questions about what is and isn't science.In a nutshell, the authors sought to discover a way of efficiently determining what a drug does. There........ Read more »

Apostolos P Georgopoulos, Elissaios Karageorgiou, Arthur C Leuthold, Scott M Lewis, Joshua K Lynch, Aurelio A Alonso, Zaheer Aslam, Adam F Carpenter, Angeliki Georgopoulos, Laura S Hemmy.... (2007) Synchronous neural interactions assessed by magnetoencephalography: a functional biomarker for brain disorders. Journal of Neural Engineering, 4(4), 349-355. DOI: 10.1088/1741-2560/4/4/001  

  • January 12, 2009
  • 07:13 PM

Medical Marijuana Helps HIV Pain

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

There have long been anecdotal reports that marijuana can have pain-killing (analgesic) effects in types of chronic pain which are otherwise difficult to treat. This has led to great enthusiasm about the prospect of "medical marijuana" - but, attractive as that might sound, there has always been a lack of hard evidence showing that marijuana in fact works. Being highly illegal in the U.S.A (more illegal than cocaine in fact), it's hard to study.A paper out today in Neuropsychopharmacology aimed ........ Read more »

Ronald J Ellis, Will Toperoff, Florin Vaida, Geoffrey van den Brande, James Gonzales, Ben Gouaux, Heather Bentley, & J Hampton Atkinson. (2008) Smoked Medicinal Cannabis for Neuropathic Pain in HIV: A Randomized, Crossover Clinical Trial. Neuropsychopharmacology, 34(3), 672-680. DOI: 10.1038/npp.2008.120  

  • January 6, 2009
  • 06:52 PM

Critiquing a Classic: "The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations"

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

One of the most blogged-about psychology papers of 2008 was Weisberg et. al.'s The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations.As most of you probably already know, Weisberg et. al. set out to test whether adding an impressive-sounding, but completely irrelevant, sentence about neuroscience to explanations for common aspects of human behaviour made people more likely to accept those explanations as good ones. As they noted in their Introduction:Although it is hardly mysterious that members of ........ Read more »

Deena Skolnick Weisberg, Frank C. Keil, Joshua Goodstein, Elizabeth Rawson, & Jeremy R. Gray. (2008) The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20(3), 470-477. DOI: 10.1162/jocn.2008.20040  

  • January 4, 2009
  • 01:14 PM

Lessons from the Video Game Brain

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

See also Lessons from the Placebo Gene. Also, if you like this kind of thing, see my other fMRI-curmudgeonry(1, 2)The life of a neurocurmudgeon is a hard one, but once in a while, fate smiles upon us. This article in the Daily Telegraph neatly embodies several of the mistakes that people make about the brain, all in one bite-size portion.The article is about a recent fMRI study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research. 22 healthy Stanford student volunteers (half of them male) played a "........ Read more »

F HOEFT, C WATSON, S KESLER, K BETTINGER, & A REISS. (2008) Gender differences in the mesocorticolimbic system during computer game-play. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 42(4), 253-258. DOI: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2007.11.010  

  • January 1, 2009
  • 09:08 AM

Are Faces Special?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

There's been a glut of face-based science lately. There was the first American face transplant (the second if you count the ill-fated Travolta/Cage one...) Then an Atlanta group allegedly found that chimpanzees have a part of the brain specialized for recognizing the faces of their fellow chimps.As I'll explain, this would be extremely important if true. This research is just the latest chapter in a long and contentious debate going back many years - a debate which, believe it or not, may hold t........ Read more »

L PARR, E HECHT, S BARKS, T PREUSS, & J VOTAW. (2008) Face Processing in the Chimpanzee Brain. Current Biology. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2008.11.048  

  • December 16, 2008
  • 09:09 AM

Alas, Poor Noradrenaline

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Previously I posted about the much-maligned serotonin theory of depression and tentatively defended it, while making it clear that "low serotonin" was certainly not the whole story. Critics have noted that the serotonin-is-happiness hypothesis has become folk wisdom, despite being clearly incomplete, and this is generally ascribed to the marketing power of the pharmaceutical industry. What's also interesting is that a predecessor and rival to the serotonin hypothesis, the noradrenaline theory, f........ Read more »

J. J. Schildkraut, & S. S. Kety. (1967) Biogenic Amines and Emotion. Science, 156(3771), 21-30. DOI: 10.1126/science.156.3771.21  

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