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Deconstructing the most sensationalistic recent findings in Human Brain Imaging, Cognitive Neuroscience, and Psychopharmacology

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  • December 5, 2009
  • 06:08 PM

Impaired Cognitive Empathy in Bipolar Disorder and in Patients with Ventromedial Prefrontal Lesions

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

Cognitive empathy, or the ability to take another person's perspective, is closely related to (or even synonymous with) theory of mind,...the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one's own.On the other hand, emotional or affective empathy is "emotional contagion" - the ability to mirror an emotional response observed in another person and to experience it vicariously. Dr. Simone Shamay-Tsoory and colleagues (2009a) have developed a model that distinguishes between the two types of empathy, which are represented by separate neuroanatomical systems (see figure below).Fig. 6 (Shamay-Tsoory et al., 2009a). Two separate systems for emotional and cognitive based empathy. Behaviourally, emotional empathy involves personal distress, empathic concern and emotion recognition. Anatomically the IFG [inferior frontal gyrus] appears to be responsible for emotional empathy. ... Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, involves perspective taking, the fantasy scale and theory of mind and is mediated by the VM [ventromedial prefrontal cortex].Individuals with bipolar disorder can show deficits in social cognition and emotion regulation even in the euthymic (remitted) state (Green et al., 2007). These observation led Shamay-Tsoory et al. (2009b) to examine cognitive and emotional empathy in 19 euthymic patients with bipolar disorder and 20 matched control participants:The cognitive and affective aspects of empathic abilities were assessed using the Interpersonal Reactive Index. The Interpersonal Reactive Index includes four seven-item subscales, each tapping a different aspect of empathy: (a) the perspective taking subscale, which measures the reported tendency to adopt spontaneously the psychological point of view of others; (b) the fantasy subscale, measuring the tendency to imaginatively transpose oneself into fictional situations; (c) the empathic concern scale, measuring the tendency to experience feelings of sympathy and compassion for others; and (d) the personal distress scale assesses the tendency to experience distress and discomfort in response to others’ observed distress.The perspective-taking subscale was used as a measure of cognitive empathy, and the personal distress scale was used as a measure of emotional empathy. To assess theory of mind, the ability to detect faux pas was examined using a set of stories developed by Baron-Cohen et al. (1999). For example:James bought Richard a toy airplane for his birthday. A few months later, they were playing with it, and James accidentally dropped it. "Don't worry" said Richard, "I never liked it anyway. Someone gave it to me for my birthday."Questions after each faux pas and control passage assessed story comprehension, false belief (i.e., the speaker had a mistaken belief and not malicious intent), faux pas detection, and specific identification of the faux pas. Also tested were recognition of emotional expressions from the eyes, cognitive flexibility, and spatial planning abilities.The results indicated that the participants with bipolar disorder had lower scores than controls for cognitive empathy, but higher scores for emotional empathy.Figure 1 (Shamay-Tsoory et al. (2009b). Participant Empathy Scores.A similar effect was observed in the faux pas task, with the patients impaired on cognitive understanding, but not in affective understanding or in recognition of the faux pas. This agrees with prior studies on theory of mind in bipolar disorder (Malhi et al., 2008; Montag et al., 2009). On the other hand, the bipolar individuals showed completely intact performance on recognizing emotion in the eyes and in the spatial planning task. However, they had difficulty in set shifting and reversal learning in the cognitive flexibility task. And greater difficulty with reversal learning was associated with lower cognitive empathy scores, suggesting that cognitive inflexibility contributes to the deficiency in taking another's perspective.What does this mean?The present study results suggest that [the likelihood to engage in the process of reflecting on the viewpoint of others] is impaired in bipolar disorder. On the second affective scale, personal distress, the bipolar disorder group actually scored significantly higher than healthy comparison subjects... This indicates a greater tendency to have self-oriented feelings of anxiety and discomfort in response to tense interpersonal settings........[Their] exaggerated emotional response to others may be expressed in a dysfunctional empathic emotional overreaction (or “hyper empathy”).This notion is consistent with the “simulation” theory, according to which individuals impersonate others’ emotional mental states, using their own mental state. Thus, it may be hypothesized that bipolar disorder patients tend to engage in the “oversimulation” of others’ emotions, as reflected in high affective empathy, and as a result, they tend to misinterpret others’ mental states, which is reflected in impaired cognitive empathy and theory of mind.What are the brain systems that mediate such difficulties in those with bipolar disorder? Returning to the model in Figure 6 (above), Shamay-Tsoory et al. (2009a) associated emotional empathy with the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and cognitive empathy with ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VM). How did they determine such a clear dissociation? This was from another experiment that administered the same set of tests to a different population: neurological patients with fairly discrete lesions in each of those brain areas.Fig. 2 (Shamay-Tsoory et al., 2009a). Group and task (cognitive versus emotional empathy) interactions. Significant interaction between group and empathy type. Patients with VM lesions were impaired in cognitive empathy compared to the healthy controls (HC), patients with posterior lesions (PC) and patients with IFG lesions whereas patients with IFG lesions wer... Read more »

  • February 20, 2011
  • 10:30 PM

Is Romantic Love a Western, Heterosexual Construct?

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

ROMANTIC LOVE WAS INVENTED TO MANIPULATE WOMEN-Jenny Holzer, TruismsDoes romantic love manipulate women into providing free domestic labor and sexual favors for men? Some feminist views of romantic love [and the institution of marriage] portray it as controlling and oppressive (Burns, 2000):‘STOP HUMAN SACRIFICE. END MARRIAGE NOW.’ ‘IT STARTS WHEN YOU SINK IN HIS ARMS AND ENDS WITH YOUR ARMS IN HIS SINK.’ From a feminist perspective, romantic love was, and is, seen to obscure or disguise gender inequality and women’s oppression in intimate heterosexual relationships.But some in the men's movement see romantic love as dangerous for men as well as women, because it prevents men from being vulnerable (Bloodwood, 2003):...historically, romantic love has been a highly gendered but workable deal in which men provide women with social status and material goods while women provide men with sex/affective labour. Thus romantic relationships not only reinforce women’s second class status but also reinforce men’s lack of sex/affective autonomy, so that romantic love is equally dangerous for women and for men.Furthermore, romantic love is often portrayed as a relatively recent construct that is specific to Western societies. A cross-cultural study by Jankowiak and Fischer (1992) claimed that:The anthropological study of romantic (or passionate) love is virtually nonexistent due to the widespread belief that romantic love is unique to Euro-American culture. This belief is by no means confined to anthropology. The historian Philippe Aries (1962), for example, argues that affection was of secondary importance to more utilitarian ambitions throughout much of European history.However, their own analysis of the ethnographic literature found that romantic love (however ill-defined) could be observed in 147 out of 166 societies, including 77% in Sub-Saharan Africa and 94% in East Eurasia (Jankowiak & Fischer, 1992). Likewise, evolutionary anthropologist Helen Fisher and colleagues suggest that romantic love evolved as one of three motivational brain systems for mating, reproduction, and parenting (Fisher et al., 2002).The biological concept that romantic love (or attraction) is an emotional/motivational system in the human brain has prompted some neuroimaging investigators to search for its elusive neural correlates. How do you measure long-term intense romantic love in an fMRI experiment? Researchers have adopted the practical (yet flawed) strategy of examining the hemodynamic response to viewing pictures of a partner with whom participants were "madly in love".Previous studies on the "neural correlates of romantic love" have focused on recently attached heterosexuals from the UK (Bartels & Zeki, 2000) or US (Aron et al., 2005). One of the main findings from these studies is that the expected dopamine/reward areas [including ventral tegmental area (VTA), substantia nigra (SN), and caudate nucleus] showed greater activation when looking at the pictures of the partner, compared to pictures of a close friend or neutral acquaintance. And in the previous post on Posterior Hippocampus and Sexual Frequency, we saw a similar response in a specifically recruited group of participants still "madly in love" after 21 years of marriage (Acevedo et al., 2011).So are the "neural correlates of romantic love" the same in non-Western, non-heterosexual participants? Two recent papers attempted to spread the love to include diverse "others" (Xu et al., 2010; Zeki & Romaya, 2010). Is the simple act of asking if the Chinese and teh gays are "just like us" when it comes to love offensive? I'll let you be the judge.Although the original study of Bartels and Zeki (2000) recruited an ethnically and culturally diverse group of subjects, all were heterosexual. Zeki and Romaya (2010) wanted to extend this work to include romantically involved gay participants. This time, they included 12 females (6 in straight and 6 in lesbian relationships) and 12 males (6 in straight and 6 in gay relationships) in their fMRI experiment. I won't belabor the methods [and the critiques thereof] here, but will refer the reader to Posterior Hippocampus and Sexual Frequency.1Fig. 2 (Zeki & Romaya, 2010). Illustration of the t statistic for the contrast Loved > Neutral showing selected activations superimposed over averaged anatomical sections. Random effects analysis with 24 subjects. Background threshold p uncorrected < 0.001. (A) Medial sagittal plane (x = 0) showing activations in the tegmentum [VTA], hypothalamus and [cerebellar] vermis. (B) Sagittal plane x = −12 (LH) showing activation in the caudate head, anterior cingulate and parietal cortex. (C) Horizontal plane z = −30; right cerebellum. (D) Horizontal plane z = −9; mid insula, left hemisphere. As for differences between the groups, there were none: no main or interactive effects of gender or sexual orientation. The results were the same for gay and straight, male and female participants [but remember that the numbers were very low, n=6 for each of the four cells]. So this particular [underpowered] study suggests that "the romantic love brain circuit" (i.e., familiarity, attention, memory, reward, etc. activity associated with looking at your partner's face) is not restricted to heterosexuals. Did they really expect anything different? Actually not, Zeki and Romaya predicted a null effect.However, the authors themselves note the difficulties inherent in their entire endeavor:We begin by emphasizing that any study of so complex and overpowering a sentiment as love is fraught with difficulties. Chief among these is that the sentiment itself involves many components – erotic, emotional, and cognitive – that are almost impossible to isolate from the overall sentiment of love. ... While acknowledging this difficulty, we tried as best we could to circumvent it, by applying a uniform criterion – that of a loved face – for studying the brain's love system. Another problem is the difficulty of controlling the mental processes that occur when subjects view their lovers' faces. The only way to address this is through the statistical methods we have used to analyze our results. We have employed a random effects analysis using the summary st... Read more »

  • May 12, 2010
  • 08:10 AM


by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

"Head-wound Hank", from Geek Orthodox.The 19th century archive of The Lancet1 is filled with simply delightful case reports. Who can resist the allure of early plastic surgery failures, such as RHINOPLASTIC OPERATION, PERFORMED BY M. LISFRANC, FOLLOWED BY DEATH? Or how about a Case of Local Tubercular Deposit on the Surface of the Brain, presented by Robert Dunn, Esq.? Finally, the tragic History of a Case of Hydrophobia, treated at the Hotel Dieu at Paris, by an injection of water into the veins did not end well (through no fault of R. Magendie, of course):2 It results from the history of this case, that a disease, which exhibited all the characters of hydrophobia, ceased by the introduction of a pint* of warm water into the veins; that the patient survived this introduction eight days: that no accident appeared to follow from it; and that the death of the patient appears to have been caused by a local disease, which was wholly unconnected with the hydrophobia, and the new mode of treatment.* The pint of Paris contains 48 cubic inches. -ED.In 1828, Dr. Sewall (Professor of Anatomy in the Colombian College, D.C.) reported on two of his cases. They are not for the faint of heart. A warning for political incorrectness is also warranted here.CASE 1. In February 1827, W. Brown, a coloured man, aged fifty years, in encountering with another individual, received a severe blow on the right side of the head with a sharp spade. When Dr. Sewall arrived, which was only a few minutes after the accident, he found him bleeding profusely, and much exhausted from the loss of blood. Though not insensible, he had lost his reason, and did not know how he came by the injury. There was a deep wound dividing the integuments, the whole of the temporal muscle, penetrating the cavity of the cranium, and extending horizontally, from an inch above the external angular process of the frontal bone, through the parietal bone just above the squamous suture, forming a fissure of three inches in length. The lower portion of bone was considerably depressed, and the two edges separated about half an inch. Two branches of the temporal artery were taken up; when, on a more critical examination, it was ascertained that the dura mater was divided for an inch in extent...OK, so the patient really did have a 3 inch crack in his skull with brain matter oozing out. Mr. Brown was treated by Dr. Sewall ("dressings were applied"). When pus was coming from the gaping wound, there was swelling followed by sloughing (apparently). Then bits of brain were scooped away with a spatula. Lovely.Although he suffered from severe headaches, Mr. Brown was declared none the worse for the wear:For about ten days after the accident, the patient complained of constant, and sometimes of severe, pain in the head; and on one occasion was affected with a slight spasm of the muscles of the face, neck, and extremities. The wound healed, and in six weeks the patient was quite well. He subsequently followed his occupation, that of scavenger, and did not manifest any deviation in the functions either of body or mind from their ordinary healthy condition.The bar was probably set pretty low for what was considered an "ordinary healthy condition" for a "coloured" man who worked as a scavenger in 1827...The second case was of a five year old boy who was kicked in the head by a horse. No race was specified, so we'll assume he was white. More oozing and scooping of brain:CASE 2. September 18th, 1827, Lewis Poole, aged five years, while playing in the street, was kicked by a horse, and taken up in a state of insensibility. Dr. Sewall arrived a quarter of an hour after the accident, and found a semicircular wound in the integuments of the head, and, corresponding with this, a large fissure in the frontal and parietal bones, about three inches above the external angle of the right eye. Through this fissure a portion of brain protruded, somewhat larger than a walnut, and was composed both of cortical [gray] and medullary [white] matter, which were easily distinguished. This was so far separated from the parts beneath, as to be removed without any violence.Once again we're informed of the patient's full recovery, but only after much unpleasantness. He was bled to the point of unconsciousness initially and then given a powerful and toxic emetic for two weeks straight:Particular circumstances prevented the subsequent use of the lancet; but he was purged actively and daily for two weeks, and the pulse kept down by nauseating doses of the tartate of antimony. Extensive suppuration came on, with a copious discharge of pus; the wound gradually healed, and in about five weeks the child was quite well. He has since remained in perfect health.I wonder for how long that lasted, since Antimony Potassium Tartate is considered a dangerous good (.doc). Inhalation can cause irritation, sore throat, coughing, and shortness of breath. Eye or skin contact causes irritation, redness, and pain. Ironically, the recommended treatment after swallowing this compound is to induce vomiting immediately. The long-term consequences of antimony poisoning are not likely to be conducive to perfect health. Neurosurgical care has certainly come a long way since 1827.Footnotes1 Now on Facebook and Twitter! Keeping up with the 21st century.2 It probably wasn't his fault if the patient was really infected with the rabies virus (aka hydrophobia).ReferenceDr. Sewall (1828). CASES OF INJURY OF THE HEAD, ACCOMPANIED BY LOSS OF BRAIN. The Lancet, 10 (265) DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(02)98130-4
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  • December 17, 2008
  • 10:46 PM

Crime, Punishment, and Jerry Springer

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

RT @Dostoyevsky Realists do not fear the results of their study."Good God!" he cried, "can it be, can it be, that I shall really take an axe, that I shall strike her on the head, split her skull open... that I shall tread in the sticky warm blood, blood... with the axe... Good God, can it be?"- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Ch. 5A new fMRI paper in Neuron (Buckholtz et al., 2008) claims to have discovered the neural correlates of evaluating another person's crime and deciding on the appropriate sentence, in emulation of judges and juries meting out third-party punishment (Fehr & Fischbacher, 2004).On the other hand, the rotating "freak show" guests on the Jerry Springer Show mete out second-party punishment,1 which is generally harsher (in midget fights and certain economic games, at least).Here’s the great new insight of the paper, according to the Preview by Johannes Haushofer and Ernst Fehr:Thus, the study of Buckholtz makes a valuable contribution in that it illustrates that third-person judgment situations, such as those used in their study, may rely on similar neural mechanisms as two-person economic and social exchanges. While it is difficult to draw reverse inferences about mental states based on brain activation (Poldrack, 2006),2 one might speculate, based on this new study, that the mental processes motivating judicial verdicts involve the suppression of prepotent emotional reactions in favor of impartial and objective verdicts.[NOTE: aren’t you just marveling at this grand new insight from fMRI? Like we didn’t already know that judges and jurors must put aside their emotionally-driven desire for revenge when coming to an impartial verdict.]Thus, this new result might, if confirmed by future studies, elucidate the neural source of judicial impartiality.All right, let's go back to the beginning. Or to the Methods, at least. One of the experimental tasks was to determine whether the perpetrator of a given hypothetical crime was responsible for his actions. There were two versions of the same basic crime scenarios with the details of Responsibility versus Diminished Responsibility counterbalanced across the two sets (e.g., compare #3 and #32 below). Half of the participants read Set 1, the other half read Set 2. Some of the infractions were minor (#7, #22), but some were crimes of the most heinous sort, whether intentional (#3) or unintentional (#27, #32). Thus, the severity of the crimes was matched across the experimental conditions as well. Below are some examples of the stimuli, taken from the Supplementary Materials. Responsibility Scenarios 3) John develops a plan to kill his 60-year-old invalid mother for the inheritance. He drags her to her bed, puts her in, and lights her oxygen mask with a cigarette, hoping to make it look like an accident. His mother screams as her clothes catch fire and she burns to death. 7) John is parking his car in the parking lot of a local football stadium, where he plans to watch a game. In the car next to his, he sees a hat with his team logo in the back seat. Seeing that the door is unlocked, John opens the door, and takes the hat. Diminished Responsibility Scenarios 22) John visits a local bookstore, carrying a large shopping bag with goods from another store. While the store clerk is preoccupied with inventory, another customer, hoping to use John unwittingly in a theft, sneaks a book into John’s shopping bag. Without realizing what has happened, John walks out without paying for the book. 27) A brain tumor is causing increasingly erratic, violent, and callous behavior in John. Soon, he develops an uncontrollable urge to kill. John abducts a boy, puts a broomstick in the boy’s r-----, and lashes him with a whip until he dies. When the tumor is later found and removed, John’s behavior returns to normal. 32) Unbeknownst to John and his doctors, his new prescription interacts with his other medications to induce severe acute psychoses. During that interaction, John returns home to his 60-year old invalid mother, who he has always adored. John lights her oxygen mask with a cigarette, and watches as his mother catches fire, screams, and burns to death. No Crime Scenarios [control condition] 47) The manual to John’s new car states: “The oil must be changed no less frequently than every 4,000 miles.” John reads the manual and is aware of what it says. However, John drives the car for 4,023 miles before taking it to a service station for the car’s first oil change. [gasp!] 48) John and his best friend have played golf together for more than ten years. They used to be evenly matched, but recently John’s friend has consistently outplayed him. Growing frustrated, John responded by taking private golf lessons from the local pro. The next time John played against his friend, he soundly beat him.That was extremely unpleasant and harsh at times, wasn't it? Over the course of the experiment, participants read 50 scenarios (20 Responsibility, 20 Diminished Responsibility, 10 No Crime) three times each: once in the scanner and twice after scanning. The procedures were as follows:Participants rated each scenario on a scale from 0–9, according to how much punishment they thought John deserved, with “0” indicating no punishment and “9” indicating extreme punishment. Punishment was defined for participants as “deserved penalty.”. . .Following the scanning session, participants rated the same scenarios along scales of emotional arousal and valence. They first rated each of the 50 scenarios (presented in random order on a computer screen outside the scanner) on the basis of how emotionally aroused they felt following its presentation (0 = calm, 9 = extremely excited). They then rated each of the scenarios, presented again in random order, on the basis of how positive or negative they felt following its presentation (0 = extremely positive, 9 = extremely negative).The results from these rating tasks are shown below, and it's not surprising that the subjects recommended more severe punishments for the perpetrator in the Responsibility scenarios than in the Diminished Responsibility scenarios.Figure 1 (Buckholtz et al., 2008). Punishment and Arousal Ratings for Each Scenario Type. While punishment and arousal scores were similar in the Responsibility condition, punishment scores were significantly lower than arousal scores in the Diminished-Responsibility condition. Error bars = SEM.As for the neuroimaging results, the authors compared the hemodynamic response in the Responsibility versus the Diminished Responsibility conditions to see what brain areas might be differentially activated. Greater activity in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (rDLPFC) was emphasized (Fig 2). Responses in bilateral anterior intraparietal sulcus were similar, but relegated to the Supplementary Materials.Figure 2 (Buckholtz et al., 2008). Relationship between Responsibility Assessment and rDLPFC Activity. (A) SPM displaying the rDLPFC VOI, based on the contrast of BOLD activity between the Responsibility and Diminished-Responsibility conditions. (B) BOLD activity time courses. BOLD peak amplitude was significantly greater in the Responsibility condition compared with both the Diminished-Responsibility and No-Crime conditions.So now we get to the interpretation that rDLPFC is suppressing emotional reactions in areas such as the amygdala, medial PFC, and posterior cingulate cortex (which were sensitive to the magnitude of punishment) in order to assign a diminished level of criminal responsibility. The problem with that reverse inference is illustrated below.This figure was generated from entering the x, y, z Talairach coordinates from the rDLPFC focus shown above (39, 37, 22)3 into the Sleuth program (available at, which searched the available database of papers for matches. The resulting list of coordinates and experiments was then imported into the GingerALE program, which performed a meta-analysis via the activation likelihood estimation (ALE) method (see this PDF). The figure illustrates that the exact same region of rDLPFC was activated during tasks that assessed attention; execution, inhibition, and observation of actions; various aspects of language and perception; and especially working memory.The authors appear to acknowledge the caveat thatthe brain regions identified in our study are not specifically devoted to legal decision-making. Rather, a more parsimonious explanation is that third-party punishment decisions draw on elementary and domain-general computations supported by the rDLPFC.They also acknowledged the confound of arousal and crime severity. Nonetheless, they concluded by waving their arms around and blabbing about the evolution of the legal system:...on the basis of the convergence between neural circuitry mediating second-party norm enforcement and impartial third-party punishment, we conjecture that our modern legal system may have evolved by building on preexisting cognitive mechanisms that support fairness-related behaviors in dyadic interactions. Though speculative and subject to experimental confirmation, this hypothesis is nevertheless consistent with the relatively recent development of state-administered law enforcement institutions, compared to the much longer existence of human cooperation.What are we to conclude from this? Since it's very late now, I'll let Jerry and Fyodor have the last words.“We can't just have mainstream behavior on television in a free society, we have to make sure we see the whole panorama of human behavior.”- Jerry Springer“Actions are sometimes performed in a masterly and most cunning way, while the direction of the actions is deranged and dependent on various morbid impressions-it's like a dream.”- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Ch. 17But when all is said and done, why don't we let Jerry Fodor have the last word?“It’s a thin line between clarity and pomposity.” — Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind, p. 17.Footnotes1 But as Wikipedia notes, "there has been continuous debate over the actual authenticity of the fighting."2 "...we won’t let that stop us from rampant speculation" [to paraphrase Haushofer and Fehr]. I feel like a broken record here, but reverse inference is a logical fallacy - one cannot directly infer the participants' cognitive or emotional state from the observed pattern of brain activity. Everyone should know better by now, and there should be a moratorium on such sloppy thinking. Or rather, such sloppy writing and publishing. The high-profile journals are the worst offenders, and they end up promoting the use of totally misleading headlines like this one:Justice may be hard-wired into the human brainCall it the justice instinct. When judging the guilt or innocence of alleged criminals, our brains seem to respond as if we were personally wronged, say researchers.The "justice instinct"?? Spare me. The experiment said absolutely nothing about evolution, genetics, or "hard-wiring."3 According to pages 932 and 938. However, page 936 and Table S1 say the coordinates are slightly different: 39, 38, 18.ReferencesJ BUCKHOLTZ, C ASPLUND, P DUX, D ZALD, J GORE, O JONES, R MAROIS (2008). The Neural Correlates of Third-Party Punishment. Neuron, 60 (5), 930-940 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2008.10.016.Fehr E, Fischbacher U. (2004). Third-party punishment and social norms. Evolution and Human Behavior 25:63–87.Haushofer J, Fehr E (2008). You Shouldn’t Have: Your Brain on Others’ Crimes. Neuron 60:738-740.Ax Murderer FAIL... Read more »

J BUCKHOLTZ, C ASPLUND, P DUX, D ZALD, J GORE, O JONES, & R MAROIS. (2008) The Neural Correlates of Third-Party Punishment. Neuron, 60(5), 930-940. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2008.10.016  

  • December 21, 2010
  • 02:07 PM

Neuroradiology as Art

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

Crucifixion, by Francis Bacon (1933).Crucifixion (1933) (oil on canvas) was subsequently purchased by Sir Michael Sadler (who, other than friends or relations, was the first to buy a painting), and who also commissioned a second version, Crucifixion (1933) (chalk, gouache and pencil), and sent Bacon an x-ray photograph of his own skull, with a request that he paint a portrait from it. Bacon duly incorporated the x-ray directly into The Crucifixion (1933).A paper by an interdisciplinary team of Serbian radiologists, anatomists, artists, and pathologists examined how neuroradiological images have been used as a form of artistic expression (Marinković et al., 2010). They started by describing skull x-rays incorporated into the paintings of Francis Bacon and Diego Rivera, then gave examples of contemporary artists who transform computerized tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance images (MRI) into art. These works include Wooden Brain (The 3D MRI Cubes) by Neil Fraser and "Art and Science #1" by Marjorie Taylor, which can be seen at the The Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art.I would add to the list any number of works by Damien Hirst, including this self-portrait:...which he incorporated into this album cover for See the Light by The Hours.Marinković and colleagues (2010) mentioned the commercialization of neuroradiology and colorized pictures of the brain by companies such as shutterstock, where you can subscribe for $249 a month and download stock photos of a "female doctor examining a brain cat scan" and "colorful brain model isolated on dark background" (much like this one).The authors also surveyed 12,673 artworks in books and Google images. They found that neuroradiological images were used in 29 works (1.01%) created by 31 artists (1.58% of 1,964 total).They wished to make their own contributions to this collection, and they did so with three pieces presented in the paper. In one of these, they...performed an x-ray of four post mortem hemispheres following the injuction of a radiopaque substance into their sulci and insertion of the copper wires around the corpus callosum and along the calcarine and parieto-occipital sulci. The radiograph of one of the hemispheres was then superimposed in Phototshop with the photograph of the subsequently made cast of the cerebral arteries.Radiological Image, by Marinković et al. (2010).Finally, they......made an inverse image of a colorized brain in a front view. this image was then superimposed with a photograph of illuminated optic fibers in the background.Cognitive Radiation, by Marinković et al. (2010).Anatomy and art intersect in a number of places, at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, the Morbid Anatomy website, the Bioephemera website by Jessica Parker, and Gunther von Hagens' BODY WORLDS (the Bioethics of which is discussed here), among many others. Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century by Carl E. Schoonover is a popular new book that's currently out of stock at Amazon.Neuroradiology, and especially the development of beautiful colorized diffusion tensor images, has captured the minds of artists, designers, and the public.From the Human Connectome Project, an effort to map the white matter connectivity of the human brain.ReferenceMarinkovic, S., Stošic-Opincal, T., Štrbac, M., Tomic, I., Tomic, O., & Djordjevic, D. (2010). Neuroradiology and Art: A Review and Personal Contribution The Tohoku Journal of Experimental Medicine, 222 (4), 297-302. DOI: 10.1620/tjem.222.297"I think one of the things is that, if you are going to be a painter, you have got to decide that you are not going to be afraid of making a fool of ... Read more »

Marinkovic, S., Stošic-Opincal, T., Štrbac, M., Tomic, I., Tomic, O., & Djordjevic, D. (2010) Neuroradiology and Art: A Review and Personal Contribution. The Tohoku Journal of Experimental Medicine, 222(4), 297-302. DOI: 10.1620/tjem.222.297  

  • June 19, 2011
  • 04:08 AM

Could Anthony Weiner Ace the Stroop Test?

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

Former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner served New York's 9th congressional district for 12 years until his online sexual indiscretions forced him to resign on June 16, 2011. We've all been overexposed [so to speak] to the "Weinergate" scandal, so no need to recount all the lurid details. Boxer briefly, he sent lewd photos of himself to young and under-aged girls following him on Twitter. This occurred despite the fact that Huma Abedin, Deputy Chief of Staff for Hillary Rodham Clinton and his wife of 2 years, was newly pregnant. Why would a high profile politician engage in such outrageous behavior?What a silly question! Because he could! Because of his political power and a giant ego that needed massaging from pretty girls less than half his age. And because he thought he could get away with it. Ask Bill, Arnold, John, and Eliot. For more on this phenomenon, I recommend On the biology of sexting, a monograph at the blog Neurological Correlates.Like many other public male figures who have fallen from grace due to their sexual activities, Weiner claimed to have checked into a treatment center to seek professional help for his ill-defined problems:"Congressman Weiner departed this morning to seek professional treatment to focus on becoming a better husband and healthier person," Weiner's spokeswoman, Risa Heller, tells Us Weekly in a statement. "In light of that, he will request a short leave of absence from the House of Representatives so that he can get evaluated and map out a course of treatment to make himself well.This was, of course, before his resignation. The New York Times went on to state:Ms. Heller would not identify the facility or the precise kind of counseling Mr. Weiner, who has admitted having explicit communications with six women he met online, would receive... . . .Ms. Pelosi had hoped that the congressman would reach the decision on his own to go. In addition to her concerns about the political distraction Mr. Weiner had become, Ms. Pelosi concluded that his behavior required medical intervention. “When you are this self-destructive, there is obviously something deeper going on with you,” said a Pelosi adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being seen as betraying her confidence.This brings us to the issue of "sexual addiction", or compulsive sexuality, or hypersexuality. Establishing an agreed-upon definition and proper diagnostic critieria for this condition is a minefield (compare Kafka 2010a, 2010b and Levine, 2010). For the present blog post, I will present the view of Reid et al. (2011) from their paper on A Surprising Finding Related to Executive Control in a Patient Sample of Hypersexual Men:The proposed diagnostic criteria for the DSM-V characterize hypersexual disorder (HD) as a repetitive and intense preoccupation with sexual fantasies, urges, and behaviors, leading to adverse consequences and clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. One defining feature of this proposed disorder includes multiple unsuccessful attempts to control or diminish the amount of time the individual engages in sexual fantasies, urges, and behavior in response to dysphoric mood states or stressful life events. Despite a constellation of studies investigating characteristics of HD (usually defined in the literature as sexual addiction, sexual compulsivity, or hypersexual behavior), little is known about the neuropsychological correlates of this phenomenon, including possible associations with executive functioning.Executive functions are a series of high-level cognitive processes that allow for the flexible control of thought and adaptive behavior. They include processes such as planning, decision making, multitasking, task switching, and impulse control. One might expect that executive functions (or at least some of them) would be impaired in those who show problematic hypersexual behavior. For example, although Weiner may be witty and reasonably intelligent, his apparent narcissism, poor impulse control, and terrible decision making abilities in the sexting realm proved to be his downfall.Anthony Weiner's comedy routine at the Congressional Correspondent's Dinner, March 30, 2011.Highlights:Ambitions to run for mayor of NYWeiner jokesPraises his lovely wife - "opposites attract"Outlines his use of social media, including TwitterFollow me @RepWeiner! (18,000 followers at that time, now over 83,000)Named to Time's 140 Best Twitter FeedsTo jump to the conclusion, the study of Reid et al. (2011) was surprising because the executive function scores of 30 men diagnosed with HD were the same as a group of 30 male volunteers without HD. All participants were administered a series of standardized neuropsychological tests that included the Stroop Color-Word Interference Test (shown above in Weiner's thought bubble), the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST), the Trail Making Test, and the Verbal Fluency Test. All of these tasks involve planning or overcoming automatic responses.In the Stroop task, the participant is instructed to say the font color and ignore the word. It's much more automatic to read the word than to say the font color, so people are slower to respond when the two dimensions are in conflict:BLUE PURPLEREDGREENTrail Making version B is an attention switching task where the participant connects the dots on the sheet below by alternating between letters and numbers: 1-A-2-B-3-C, etc.Before we examine the authors' interpretation of this interesting null effect, let's take a closer look at some of the defining characteristics of the HD grou... Read more »

  • March 20, 2011
  • 06:30 PM

On M&M'S® and Dog Phobia

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

Fun With Behavior Therapy from the 70s, Part 2In our next installment of food-based behavior therapies to treat phobias in adults, we have a case report of combined exposure/M&M treatment (Kroll, 1975). First is a description of the client's fear of dogs:The client was a 22-yr-old female graduate student with a strong fear and avoidance of dogs. She had been told by her parents that a large brown dog had knocked her over when she was a child, but she did not remember the incident nor did she attribute her fear to it. She could not remember any time in her life when she was not afraid of dogs. The intensity of her fear was unaffected by size or breed of dog. If she was alone and saw a dog approaching her, she became highly anxious and walked away very rapidly or, if possible, crossed the street to avoid an encounter. When leaving her house and seeing a dog, she either exited through the back door or waited until the dog left before walking outside. If she was walking with another person and unavoidably encountered a dog, she became intensely anxious and held onto the other person tightly while attempting to put the person between her and the dog.Next is description of the treatment, which included voluntary food deprivation. Notice, however, that the client did not agree to 24 hrs without food:The client was instructed not to eat anything for 12-hr prior to the treatment session. It was originally planned that she would undergo 24-hr food deprivation, but she did not think she could go without eating longer than 12-hr. Because among her favorite foods M & M's were most preferred, I decided on using them to inhibit anxiety. She was told that they would have greater reward value than any other food and would therefore increase the probability of successfully inhibiting anxiety elicited by a feared object. And here we have evidence of the therapist's condescending attitude:Since I had told her of other cases in which food was used as an anxiety inhibitor, she was receptive to the use of M & M's. (It should be noted that she was unaware of the client populations with whom M & M's are typically used.)So the client bought a large bag of M&M's and went to an animal shelter, accompanied by the therapist. From the very beginning, the therapeutic value of the M&M's is not really clear, given the calming presence of the therapist:Upon entering the room in which the dogs were caged, the client's initial response was fear. She made no attempt, however, to leave the room. Starting at a distance of about seven feet--the farthest away in the room that one could stand from the animals--I walked with the client around the room as far as possible from the cages while feeding her M & M's. ... At the end of the session which lasted approximately 2-hr, she reported feeling relaxed in the presence of the dogs. She expressed confidence that she could encounter dogs without fear or need to avoid them.It's scientifically proven! M&M'S® can cure phobias in a single 2 hr session! However, that laughable conclusion was even questioned by the author at the conclusion of the article:The possibility exists that, instead of the feeding, or perhaps in addition to it, graduated exposure or therapist-client interaction or modeling were responsible, singly or in complex interaction for the client's improvement. As control observations were not made, one cannot rule out the possibility that the feeding was superfluous.To end on a serious note, one application of this approach to behavior therapy is not a laughing matter at all, as noted in a comment on my last post by Michelle Dawson, author of The Autism Crisis blog:Not phobias, but extreme food deprivation has been used as an early autism treatment, with very young children.You can find a 1970s use of extreme food deprivation at UCLA reported in this book. Lovaas' reported recommendation was 36hrs of food and liquid deprivation for a 4yr old. The purpose was to make the child "hungry and desperate enough to do anything for food." Instead the child got very sick, threw up bile, and was too tired and listless to work for his food.Another book reports in passing the use of routine food deprivation as autism treatment by Lovaas at UCLA, within the most famous autism study ever.To my knowledge there has never been any criticism of this kind of practice published in any journal.I highly recommend her three part series on Autism Advocacy and Aversives: part one, part two, part three.ReferenceKroll, H. (1975). Rapid treatment of dog phobia by a feeding procedure Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 6 (4), 325-326 DOI: 10.1016/0005-7916(75)90071-3

... Read more »

Kroll, H. (1975) Rapid treatment of dog phobia by a feeding procedure. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 6(4), 325-326. DOI: 10.1016/0005-7916(75)90071-3  

  • September 7, 2011
  • 07:07 AM

Chronic Ketamine for Depression: An Unethical Case Study?

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

A year ago, Ketamine for Depression: Yay or Neigh? covered acute administration of the club drug (and dissociative anesthetic) ketamine for rapid (albeit transient) relief of major depression. That post was part of a blog focus on hallucinogenic drugs in medicine and mental health, organized by Nature editor Noah Gray following publication of a review article on The neurobiology of psychedelic drugs: implications for the treatment of mood disorders. At the time, I wrote:Although the immediate onset of symptom amelioration gives ketamine a substantial advantage over traditional antidepressants (which take 4-6 weeks to work), there are definite limitations (Tsai, 2007). Drawbacks include the possibility of ketamine-induced psychosis (Javitt, 2010), limited duration of effectiveness (aan het Rot et al., 2010), potential long-term deleterious effects such as white matter abnormalities (Liao et al., 2010), and an inability to truly blind the ketamine condition due to obvious dissociative effects in many participants.At present, what are the most promising uses for ketamine as a fast-acting antidepressant? Given the disadvantages discussed above, short-term use for immediate relief of life-threatening or end-of-life depressive symptoms seem to be the best indications.For the past few weeks, I've been wanting to do a follow-up post that looks at the ups and downs of the mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin) protein kinase pathway, which is rapidly activated by ketamine. Although activation of mTOR leads to the beneficial effect of increased synaptogenesis in the medial prefrontal cortex (Li et al., 2010), it can also cause accelerated tumor growth, as recently noted by Yang et al., 2011 ("Be prudent of ketamine in treating resistant depression in patients with cancer"). However, I've been unable to complete this planned post, specifically because the topic of ketamine use in palliative care settings is something I wrote about last year, while watching my father die of cancer.More recently, an open label study in two hospice patients, each with a prognosis of only weeks or months to live, showed beneficial effects of ketamine in the treatment of anxiety and depression (Irwin & Iglewicz, 2010). A single oral dose produced rapid improvement of symptoms and improved end of life quality.To be blunt, the possibility of accelerated tumor growth is not an issue in terminal patients.In terms of medical ethics, it's easier for me to take a different angle and address the unusual case of a grievously and chronically depressed patient (Messer & Haller, 2010). An anonymous reader alerted me to this paper, which isn't indexed in PubMed. The case history is as follows:In January 2008, a 46-year old female with MDD was hospitalized for a course of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Successive interventions over 15 years had included trials of 24 psychotropic medications and 273 ECT treatments, 251 of which were bilateral [which can produce significant amnesia]. No intervention had produced remission but only a short-lived response to treatment...ECT during this admission was administered with ketamine as the anesthetic at 2 mg/kg given over 60 seconds. Surgical anesthesia occurred ~30 seconds after the end of intravenous injection and lasted ~10 minutes. There was no significant change in depression symptoms with the ketamine used as an anesthetic during the ECT treatment. Alternative treatments were reviewed for potential use. In addition to no significant recovery from her depression, the long-term use of ECT caused problems with memory loss and focused attention. She was unable to remember much of her history over the previous 15 years. Re-learning the information became futile since each course of ECT would eliminate what had been gained.I'm not going to weigh in here on ECT, beyond saying that it can be beneficial in some intractable patients [with fewer amnestic effects if unilateral]. But here we have an individual with profound ECT-induced amnesia who, although giving informed consent, was then treated with a highly unorthodox regimen of repeated ketamine infusions. The majority of registered clinical trials administer a single dose of ketamine, with one trial administering 5 additional ketamine infusions over a 2-week period. Relapse typically occurs within a week after a single dose.On the other hand Dr. Messer's clinical trial, Ketamine Frequency Treatment for Major Depressive Disorder, was withdrawn prior to enrollment because pilot study determined the trial would not be feasible. The planned regimen was 6 injections every other day for 12 days. But the actual treatment given to the 46 yr old woman was much more extensive: 22 doses over 4 months, followed by 21 doses over 1 yr (approximately):The first ketamine treatment led to a dramatic remission of depressive symptoms: the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) score decreased from 22 to 6 (Figure). Three additional infusions administered every other day over 5 days produced remission lasting 17 days after the last infusion in this series. Three series of six ketamine infusions given every other day except weekends were repeated over the next 16 weeks (Figure). Each infusion sequence produced remission lasting 16, 28, and 16 days, respectively, followed by a relapse. After three remission/relapse cycles and before relapse could occur after the fourth infusion series, a maintenance ketamine regimen was established on August 27, 2008 using 0.5 mg/kg IBW at a 3-week inter-dose interval. The authors’ estimation for the maintenance dosing interval was based on the time frame between remission and relapse for this patient. Relapse to depression was prevented by treating prior to the onset of a relapse.First, I was struck by the starting BDI score of 22, which falls within the low end of moderate depression, with scores of 29-63 indicating severe depression. I don't want to question Dr. Messer's clinical diagnosis of the patient, but I would guess that a typical BDI II score of 22 might not call for drastic measures. But perhaps the original BDI was used, in which case 19-29 indicates moderate-severe depression (which is still not severe). Second, the number of infusions went well beyond what has been established as safe, particularly in the context of treatment-resistant depression.- click on image for a larger view -What were the cognitive effects? We don't really know, because there was no formal testing:As shown in the Figure, with maintenance infusions the patient has been in remission for >15 months. No concurrent pharmacotherapeutic agents have been administered or required during this time period, no adverse events have emerged, and there has been no cognitive impairment as is typical with ECT, polypharmacy, or from MDD itself.What we do know is that ketamine is cost-effective relative to ECT:The cost and personnel needed for a ketamine treatment are far less than that of... Read more »

Messer M, Haller IV (2010). Maintenance Ketamine Treatment Produces Long-term Recovery from Depression. (2010) Maintenance Ketamine Treatment Produces Long-term Recovery from Depression. Primary Psychiatry, 48-50. info:/

  • May 27, 2011
  • 02:00 AM

Abusing Chocolate and Bipolar Diagnoses

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

Is chocolate a legal "social drug" of abuse in the same category as nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol? Do you hang out at chocolate cafes with the purpose of becoming high or intoxicated? No? Have you heard of cancer-related deaths due to chocolate or driving under the influence of chocolate?And really, how much chocolate is considered "chocolate abuse"?1A new paper by Maremmani et al. (2011) addressed none of these questions, but asked 562 depressed Italian outpatients about their cigarette, coffee, and chocolate consumption. Why? Actually, it's not clear.Across all ages and cultures, mankind has always used substances in order to induce pleasurable sensations or desirable psychophysiological states. These substances, notably caffeine, tobacco, alcohol and chocolate, given their widely accepted recreational use, can be labeled ‘social drugs’.This passage appeared as Background in the Abstract and as the first two sentences of the Introduction: brief literature review. But we have no explanation of why cigarettes, coffee, and chocolate are assumed to be "social drugs". Are there no solitary smokers, drinkers, and eaters? Look at the large number of singletons staring at laptop screens at any Starbucks. However, cafe culture in Italy or France does allow for smoking, espresso sipping, and chocolate croissant nibbling all at the same time. Also, anti-smoking laws in other countries force smokers to congregate outside to smoke, which often turns into a social activity.But why look at the consumption of "social drugs" in people who are depressed? Aren't these individuals less inclined to be social? And aren't they likely to show anhedonia (loss of interest of pleasure) according to DSM IV criteria?2) markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day (as indicated by either subjective account or observation made by others)We're reminded that caffeine improves mood and cognitive performance, increases mental energy, and reduces fatigue, that nicotine increases attention and working memory, and that chocolate can also improve mood and even reduce stress. We're also reminded that psychiatric patients use more drugs than those in the general population:With regard to caffeine, in hospitalized psychiatric patients the prevalence of tolerance and intoxication is significantly higher than in the healthy population. The highest caffeine intake has been found in patients suffering from eating disorders (Ciapparelli et al., 2010) and schizophrenia (Rihs et al., 1996), the lowest in patients with anxiety disorders and major depression (Ciapparelli et al., 2010; Rihs et al., 1996).It's well known that the prevalence of smoking among individuals with schizophrenia is quite high (70-80%), higher than for those with other mental illnesses (Winterer, 2010). In fact, smoking is often considered a form of self-medication. So are cigarettes a "social drug" for smokers with schizophrenia?Finally, we have the case of chocolate, where Maremmani et al. (2011) issue a number of curious pronouncements:Lastly, the consumption of chocolate has shown interesting forms of linkage with psychiatric conditions. The correlation most often studied is that with depression: it has been observed that the craving for the rewards given by chocolate intensifies when depressive mood is induced... More severe depressive symptoms have been associated with higher chocolate consumption (Rose et al., 2010). Self-labeled ‘chocolate addicts’ do not generally seem to suffer from eating disorders, but may constitute a population of psychologically vulnerable people with a high predisposition to depression and anxiety disorders (Dallard et al., 2001). More specifically, a craving for chocolate seems to be unusually high not only in cases of depressed mood, but also in conditions of emotional dysregulation, like anxious and irritable states. The capacity to find comfort in eating chocolate seems to be related to the biological mechanisms of emotional instability,2 so that the depression associated with a craving for chocolate turns out to be an efficient discriminator of hysteroid dysphoria3 and DSM-IV atypical depression (Parker and Crawford, 2007; Schuman et al., 1987).So of the three "social drugs", chocolate seems like the winner among depressives of any sort, especially those with the greatest emotional dysregulation (i.e., those with bipolar disorder).Then the introductory narrative inserts a non sequitur or three on illegal drugs of abuse (heroin and cocaine) and alcohol use in bipolar disorder, and "cyclothymic traits" in bipolar individuals, heroin addicts, and alcoholics. Furthermore........This reported bipolar connection, in our opinion, is not just valid at a clinical level. We have stressed the possible role of the bipolar spectrum in the pathogenesis of substance use disorders. In particular, our integrated model provides an explanation for why the bipolar spectrum is the psychic substrate for the development of a substance-resorting attitude...So let's blur the lines between alcoholics and coffee drinkers, schizophrenic smokers and chocolate-craving dysthymics, severe bipolar I disorder and mild cyclothymia, shall we? Then what?The 562 depressed Italian outpatients were initially given one of four DSM-IV-TR diagnoses:192 patients with a Major Depressive Episode, 212 with Major Depression, Recurrent, 119 with Bipolar Depression, and 39 with Depression NOS (“not otherwise specified”).The participants also filled out the Hypomania Checklist (HCL-32) and according to the dichotomous rating procedure, there were 306 non-bipolar and 256 bipolar depressive patients [vs. 119 bipolar depressives according to DSM-IV-TR]. This illustrates the expansionism of the "bipolar spectrum" project, which is a major goal of the senior author.Then we have the vague quantification of chocolate use:The social drug habit was recorded in terms of the use of tobacco, coffee and dark chocolate-based food (chocolate bars, hot chocolate, chocolate-containing ice cream, biscuits or cakes). We classified smoking habits by division into 3 ascending ranks: total non-smokers, past regular users and current regular users and considered one cigarette as a “unit”. As to coffee, we distinguished between regular consumption (at least one coffee a day) and sporadic or no use [one cup was considered a unit]. What was considered a chocolate "unit"? The paper doesn't say.To reiterate: the goals of the study were to prove that the notion of "bipolar" should be expanded, and that those on the "bipolar spectrum" are more likely to abuse substances of any sort.And did the results support these ideas? Well, 44.5% of the DSM-IV-TR bipolar depressives were current smokers, and 43.4% of the HCL-32 bipolar depressives were current smokers. However, the statistics were only significant in the latter case, because the comparison was between only two groups, instead of between four groups. Even better are the number of cigarettes smoked daily: 10.66 for the DSM bipolars [vs. 8.13 for the other groups combined], and 10.45 for the HCL bipolars [vs. 7.51 for the non-bipolars]. The stats were nonsignificant in the first case (p=.33) and highly significant in the second case (p=.0003).In contrast, there were no differences in chocolate consumptio... Read more »

Maremmani I, Perugi G, Rovai L, Maremmani AG, Pacini M, Canonico PL, Carbonato P, Mencacci C, Muscettola G, Pani L.... (2011) Are "social drugs" (tobacco, coffee and chocolate) related to the bipolar spectrum?. Journal of affective disorders. PMID: 21605911  

  • November 12, 2010
  • 06:23 PM

Tetris Helps Prevent Unpleasant Memories of Gory Film in Happy People

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

Most everything you've read about the Doctors Prescribing 'Tetris Therapy' study is wrong. That ridiculous headline, courtesy of "fair and balanced" Fox News, is the most egregious lie I could find [if you have other favorites, please leave links in the comments]. Press stories frequently distort research findings, but sometimes the authors themselves shoulder the most blame (Holmes et al., 2010). Misuse of the words "trauma" "flashback" "cognitive vaccine" and "PTSD" are at fault here.The experiment in question is interesting as a memory study. It demonstrated that playing a visuospatial video game (Tetris) 30 min after a disturbing film can lessen intrusive visual memories, but playing a verbal trivia game (Pub Quiz) can have the opposite effect (Holmes et al., 2010). According to Baddeley (1992), this occurs because of two modality-specific working memory systems: the visuospatial sketchpad for visual working memory and the phonological loop for verbal working memory. Tetris interferes with the former, while Pub Quiz interferes with the latter.Sixty participants (18–60 yrs old; mean age=27 yrs; 30 females) took part in Experiment 1. They were carefully screened for trauma history, mood, trait anxiety and depression. Potential subjects were excluded if they had ever been treated for mental illness of any kind. So this is a group of healthy controls -- not depressed, not anxious, minimal exposure to trauma, and no PTSD. They were a happy bunch, with mean scores on the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) of 5.7-6.2.1The participants were divided into three groups for the different treatment conditions, illustrated below.Figure 1 (from Holmes et al., 2010). Experiment 1 study design overview. Participants completed the trauma film paradigm, a well established experimental analog for PTSD. All participants viewed a traumatic film followed by a 30-min structured break. Participants were then allocated to one of three experimental conditions [Tetris vs. no-task control vs. Pub Quiz] which they completed for 10 min. Afterwards participants in the computer game conditions rated their enjoyment of the game. Flashbacks (involuntary memories) were monitored for 1 week using an intrusion diary. After 1 week, diary compliance was checked and a test of voluntary memory (recognition memory test) for the trauma film was administered.What is the "trauma film paradigm"?The 21-min film [previously used in 22] contained 15 clips of traumatic content including fatal road traffic accidents and graphic scenes of human surgery. Following that link leads you to this description (and a series of other studies):Participants were shown a 13 min film of real-life footage of the aftermath of road traffic accidents (compiled by Steil, 1996). This film has been used extensively in studies using the trauma film paradigm (e.g. Brewin and Saunders, 2001, Hagenaars et al., 2008, Halligan et al., 2002, Holmes et al., 2004, Holmes et al., 2006, Holmes and Steel, 2004 and Stuart et al., 2006). It consists of five separate scenes each introduced by a short commentary providing context for the scene.To begin with, actual trauma isn't forewarned or contextualized in advance. It's surprising and shocking. Granted, ethical considerations require informing the participants at the time of recruitment, but this imposes even more limits as a model of real trauma.Going back to the string of references, the first citation (Steil, 1996) indicates the author studied "Posttraumatic intrusions after road traffic accidents" (not merely watching a road traffic accident film). Nonetheless, let's quickly review some of the other papers, with an eye on the terminology used by the respective authors. Brewin and Saunders (2001) looked at "intrusive memories for a stressful film". Hagenaars et al. (2008) reported on "the development of intrusions after an aversive film". In 2004, Holmes et al. studied "intrusive memory development". Notice that "traumatic" and "flashbacks" aren't yet part of the lexicon. As time went on, Holmes et al., 2006 called it a "traumatic film" but hadn't yet transformed "intrusive memories" into "flashbacks". The language used to describe the experimental phenomena shapes the reader's willingness to view the film paradigm as a proxy for real trauma.What is a true flashback? Here's the relevant section of the DSM-IV Criteria for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, which describes a flashback episode as a complex, multi-sensory experience and not just a visual memory:(3) acting or feeling as if the traumatic event were recurring (includes a sense of reliving the experience, illusions, hallucinations, and dissociative flashback episodes, including those that occur upon awakening or when intoxicated). Another element of these experimental designs can include ratings of how upset the participants were while viewing the gory film (Holmes et al., 2004):Participants rated their distress associated with viewing the film after it had ended. They also rated their level of depression, anger, happiness, and anxiety both pre- and postfilm. Eleven-point scales were used, with anchors of 0 (not at all) and 10 (extremely).In that study, ratings were 5.1 for a "no task" condition that did not involve a secondary task while watching the video. So these participants were not especially distressed. Furthermore, this unvalidated self-rating scale has no clinical relevance to PTSD. Eleven-point scales were also used to rate [non-clinical] levels of depression, anger, happiness, and anxiety both pre- and postfilm.Finally, to illustrate that the "trauma film paradigm" bears no relation to the lasting effects of real trauma that can cause PTSD is this ethical clarification (Holmes et al., 2004):With respect to the ethical issues of showing a film with traumatic content, ... Read more »

  • August 16, 2008
  • 07:13 PM

Fewer Clothes = More Prime-Time Olympic Coverage

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

Really? Scantily-clad women are featured in NBC's prime-time coverage of the Summer Olympics? It's true!In the Boston Globe's Uncommon Knowledge feature ("Surprising insights from the social sciences"), Kevin Lewis writes:Fewer clothes = more coverage AS YOU WATCH the Olympics this week, try to put yourself inside the minds of the network executives who get to decide what to broadcast. Given that you've spent billions on licensing and production costs - meaning that you need the most people from the best advertising demographics to watch - which events and athletes do you highlight? A study out of Clemson University analyzed videotapes of all prime-time Summer and Winter Olympic programming since 1996. Although the Summer Olympics covered men's and women's events about the same, the Winter Olympics was significantly biased toward men's events. The author notes that prominent coverage of women in gymnastics, swimming, diving and, lately, beach volleyball is consistent with the notion "that the Summer Games (offering many events that involve women athletes in swimsuits and leotards) will yield higher clock-time totals than the Winter Games (offering many events that involve women athletes in parkas and other less sexually charged apparel)."It's not really a surprising insight, but there you go.In the study, which was published in the journal Television & New Media, Andrew Billings (and 16 students) watched all 348 hours of prime-time TV coverage of the 1998, 2002, and 2006 Winter Olympics and the 1996, 2000, and 2004 Summer Olympics. Why?The objective of providing this longitudinal perspective is to highlight long-term gender trends within this very prominent sportscast by isolating men’s and women’s Olympic clock time in six consecutive Olympics. In doing so, the study underscores how the Olympic telecast itself is changing over time in terms of spotlighting different events.The results demonstrated a slight overall advantage for coverage of male over female athletes in the Summer Games (51.9% vs. 48.1%) which was only significant in 2000. In contrast, coverage of male athletes in the Winter Games was significantly greater in all three years (overall 61.6% male vs. 38.4% female). Note that pairs events (such as pairs figure skating) were excluded.For the Summer Olympics, the big three events for men were gymnastics (28.0% of the total male coverage), track and field (23.9%), and swimming (14.5%). For women, gymnastics (40.1%), track and field (16.9%), and diving (15.0%) had the greatest coverage. Although beach volleyball became an Olympic sport in 1996, the women's competition was only televised in 2004. In that year, the women had 2 hours of prime-time coverage, compared to only 1 minute for men's beach volleyball.Swimsuits have become more modest (and aerodynamic) over time. Has that affected TV time?1996 Olympic Swimming event in AtlantaPossibly, although the article did not place the longitudinal changes in that context:For men, the sports that gained coverage in the Summer Olympics were swimming and track and field (largely the result of network timeslot shifting in which these events moved from earlier time slots to within prime-time coverage).Adapted from Tables 1 and 2 (Billings, 2008).There was no such change in swimsuits in the diving events, however. If anything, men's swimsuits are more skimpy than the women's in this sport. Thus, it was notable that across all three Olympics, women's diving received 7 hrs 47 min coverage (15%) while men's received 4 hrs 34 min (8.2%).These relationships are speculative. Let's read what the author actually said:...the Summer Olympic events in which men were more likely to be shown than women were basketball, cycling, swimming, track and field, and volleyball. While some predictions for these differences could be proffered (i.e., lingering effects of the “Dream Team” in basketball or Lance Armstrong’s effect on the world of men’s cycling), the results only speak to the significant clock time differences rather than the reasons for them.In contrast, women were more likely than men to be shown in beach volleyball (rising from no coverage to a two full hours of clock time in 2004), diving, and gymnastics. While all of these sports could be viewed as the fairly attractive/graceful category that Kane (1988) outlined (with the possible exceptions of basketball and the field sports in track and field), it is interesting to note that all of the sports in which women received the majority of the coverage involved the wearing of swimsuits or leotards. One could presume that the same desire to highlight attractive athletes would result in a desire for attractive male athletes, yet Jones, Murrell, and Jackson’s (1999) analysis found that a very different dichotomy was at work, with sports journalists highlighting “pretty” females but “powerful” males.So yes, sex sells. Or put in more formal terms:While this study does not attempt to interpret the cognitive processes of NBC gatekeepers in determining what to show, three additional propositions can be offered.. . .Second, attractive sports, such as beach volleyball, appear to be on the upswing, specifically for women. While men received more coverage in beach volleyball in 2000 than they did in 2004, women’s coverage increased exponentially. Part of this was likely the result of a highly skilled team, Misty May and Kerri Walsh, who won every match all year en route to a gold medal. Still, one has to note that part of the appeal of showing this event more frequently could reside in showing attractive women in swimsuits. The sexualized male gaze imparts a double standard within clock time differences, as the percentage of men athletes in sexualized situations (i.e., swimsuits/leotards) is not on the upswing nearly as much as for the women athletes.ReferenceBillings, A.C. (2008). Clocking Gender Differences: Televised Olympic Clock Time in the 1996--2006 Summer and Winter Olympics. Television & New Media, 9(5), 429-441. DOI: 10.1177/1527476408315502Analysis of all 348 prime-time hours of the 1996—2006 Olympic telecasts (three Summer, three Winter) pinpointed trends in coverage of men's and women's sports. Results indicate that while men athletes and events received the majority of clock time in all six Olympic telecasts, the Summer Olympic telecasts treated women far more equitably than the Winter Olympic telecast. The longitudinal study does not offer any reason to feel that coverage of women's athletics is improving over time, finding that the proportion of clock time devoted to men's and women's sports is relatively the same in 2006 compared to ten years earlier.... Read more »

  • September 1, 2008
  • 01:15 AM

Who Can You Trust?

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

As a sequel to the "Trust Your Insula" theme from last time (i.e., Borderline … feels like I'm goin' to lose my mind), The Neurocritic has consulted the BrainMap database, which revealed that the anterior insula is activated in a wide variety of cognitive, perceptual, and motor tasks. But first, a recap.In their recent Science paper entitled The Rupture and Repair of Cooperation in Borderline Personality Disorder, King-Casas et al. (2008) examined how well individuals with borderline personality disorder trusted others in an economic exchange game (called, conveniently enough, the Trust Game). In this game, one player (the Investor) gives a sum of money to the other player (the Trustee). The investment triples, and the Trustee decides how much to give back to the Investor. Relative to the control group, the BPD group was more likely to make a small repayment after receiving a small investment. This reflected a lack of cooperation (or "coaxing" behavior) designed to induce the Investors to trust their partners.For the fMRI portion of the study, the authors bypassed more general analyses comparing BPD and control brains during the point of investment and the point of repayment. Instead, the major neuroimaging result contrasted the receipt of low investment offers vs. high investment offers, as illustrated below. Control brains showed a nearly perfect linear correlation between $ offer and activity in the anterior insula (expressed here as a negative correlation, because low $ offers correlated with high insula activity). Such a relationship was not observed in BPD brains. In fact, no brain region in the BPD group showed a difference between high and low offers.Fig. 3 (King-Casas et al., 2008). Response of 38 healthy trustee brains and 55 BPD trustee brains to level of cooperation. (Top). Results of within-group GLM [general linear model] analyses identified cortical regions with greater response to small investments (less than or equal to $5) relative to large investments (greater than $10). (Bottom). Percent change in hemodynamic signal was averaged from the 115 most significant voxels identified in the group-level GLM during the 4- to 8-s period following the revelation of investment. The means + SE of the resulting signal are plotted in $4 bins.1 Responses in bilateral anterior insula in healthy trustees scale strongly and negatively with the size of investment (r = –0.97; bottom left). In contrast, similar analyses in individuals with BPD showed no such relation.The authors linked the insular activation to the detection of social norm violations in interpersonal contexts, concluding that individuals with BPD are deficient in this regard.2 But what are the participants really thinking about during the 4-8 sec interval following a stingy offer? Do we have yet another example of reverse inference here?Below is a figure generated from entering the x, y, z coordinates from the right insular focus shown above into the Sleuth program (available at, which searched the available database of papers for matches. The resulting list of coordinates and experiments was then imported into the GingerALE program, which performed a meta-analysis via the activation likelihood estimation (ALE) method (see this PDF). The figure illustrates that this exact same region of the right insula was activated during tasks that assessed speech, language, explicit memory, working memory, reasoning, pain, and listening to emotional music.Perhaps the control subjects in the King-Casas et al. study were muttering to themselves about the stingy offer. Maybe they were engaging working memory processes to a greater extent on those trials. Or maybe they were remembering a time when they were shortchanged at the grocery store. Do we conclude, then, that the BPD subjects did not do any of those things? Or that they engaged those types of processes to an equivalent extent after low and high offers?To summarize, the extrapolation about the insula and social norm violations was based on a handful of trials from 38 different control participants. I'll leave you with a few questions to ponder. Can the study can really say anything specific about the insular response on those low $ offers? Do we trust that the rest of the brain is completely silent on the matter? We do know that the BPD group scored lower than controls on a self-report measure of trust (the Interpersonal Trust Scale), but do we know what they were really thinking about during the trust game? At the end of the day, does this finding "give psychiatrists a better diagnostic tool and a brain area to target with therapy or drugs when treating BDP"?What do you think?Footnotes1 Note that these 6 monetary bins were formed from a total of 10 trials per dyad.2 See The Right and The Good and The Insula for discussion of yet another Science paper; this one localized the concept of fairness to the insula.ReferenceB. King-Casas, C. Sharp, L. Lomax-Bream, T. Lohrenz, P. Fonagy, P. R. Montague (2008). The Rupture and Repair of Cooperation in Borderline Personality Disorder Science, 321 (5890), 806-810 DOI: 10.1126/science.1156902... Read more »

B. King-Casas, C. Sharp, L. Lomax-Bream, T. Lohrenz, P. Fonagy, & P. R. Montague. (2008) The Rupture and Repair of Cooperation in Borderline Personality Disorder. Science, 321(5890), 806-810. DOI: 10.1126/science.1156902  

  • January 22, 2009
  • 08:49 PM

When I Get That Feeling, I Need Sexual Sweating

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

Did you know that male "sexual sweat" differs from ordinary sweat? Apparently so, according to a new paper in the Journal of Neuroscience (Zhou & Chen, 2008). Curiously, the article did not cite any references for this, nor did it specify the chemical composition of sexual sweat. Nonetheless, the results of an fMRI experiment suggested that the orbitofrontal cortex and the fusiform region in 20 female participants responded differently when smelling the two substances. How was such a study conducted, you might ask?And here the fun begins...Sweat collection. From 2 d before the experiment until the end of the experiment, 20 heterosexual male donors in a larger study refrained from using deodorant/antiperspirant/scented products, and used scent-free shampoo/conditioner, soap, and lotion provided by the experimenter. They reported to have experience with watching sexually explicit videos, and signed informed consent before participation. Subjects kept a 4" x 4" pad (rayon/polyester for maximum absorbance) in each armpit while they watched 20-min-long video segments intended to produce the emotions of sexual arousal (sexual intercourse between heterosexual couples) and neutrality (educational documentaries), respectively. ... Over the course of the 20 min video segments, donors experienced greater arousal (measured by skin conductance) while watching erotic videos than while watching neutral videos... Three healthy, male nonsmokers (aged 26, 29, and 29 years) were subsequently selected for the current study mainly because of their higher level of the self-reported sexual arousal.How were the female participants selected?We recruited only women for their superior sense of smell and sensitivity to emotional signals. Twenty right-handed females (mean age = 23.4 years) were selected from a group of 42 women on the basis that they reported to have no rhinal disorders or neurological diseases, and that they showed superior olfactory sensitivity to PSP [the putative sex pheromone androstadienone] and PEA [phenyl ethyl alcohol]. They either were in a heterosexual relationship or had been in one within the previous year. They were not on hormone contraceptives, and were tested during the periovulatory phase of their menstrual cycles. ... Subjects were informed that the study was on brain activations to natural compounds. They were blind to the nature of the smells used in the experiment.The scanning was performed while the women were inhaling......the sweat of sexual arousal in comparison with two other social chemosensory compounds (PSP and the sweat of neutrality) and a nonsocial smell [phenyl ethyl alcohol (PEA)].The sweat of neutrality. The sweat of sexual arousal! [plus the two others.] The subjects rated the four inhalants (presented 10 times each) on intensity and pleasantness, as shown below. And the smell of sexual sweat was not particularly pleasant...Figure 1. Mean intensity and pleasantness ratings. There are four types of olfactory stimuli, and SE bars are shown. For intensity, 1 refers to no smell, 2 little smell, 3 moderate smell, 4 quite a bit smell, and 5 strong smell. For pleasantness, 1 refers to very unpleasant, 2 unpleasant, 3 neutral, 4 pleasant, and 5 very pleasant. Sex, Sexual sweat; Neutral, neutral sweat. Sexual sweat and PSP were perceived to be more intense than neutral sweat; PEA was perceived to be more pleasant than sexual sweat and neutral sweat.At the end of the experiment, the participants gave verbal descriptions of the smells. Only one characterized sexual sweat as "sweaty/human." So the women were not [consciously] aware that the odor was obtained from sexually aroused men.The right hypothalamus showed increased activity to sexual sweat relative to alcohol, but so did androstadienone and neutral sweat. The two brain regions that responded more to sexual sweat than to the other odors are illustrated below. The right orbitofrontal cortex is an olfactory region, but the right fusiform gyrus is a high-level visual region. The authors say their fusiform region1 falls in the vicinity of the fusiform face area (FFA) and fusiform body area (FBA). Hmm.Figure 3. a. Coronal view showing an area in the right orbitofrontal cortex (33, 40, –1) activated in the omnibus ANCOVA F test (svc, p less than 0.005). d. Sagittal view showing a region in the right fusiform gyrus (35, –51, –7) activated in the omnibus ANCOVA F test (uncorrected p less than 0.0005, cluster size = 49 mm3).The authors took a giant leap when speculating about visual imagery of faces and bodies:The Talairach coordinates of the fusiform region identified in our experiment fall in the range of the coordinates for FFA and FBA. Such anatomical location likely reflects a recognition of the human quality in the sexual sweat, whose emotional nature may have also contributed to the activation. Considering its functional connectivity to the right hippocampus/ parahippocampal gyrus, the recognition may arise from implicitly associating the sexual sweat with humans based on past experience. The fact that most subjects did not perceive the sexual sweat as human related suggests that the effects we observed occurred at a subconscious level. Implicit face/body visual processing in response to a sexual chemosensory cue? But nothing specific in the hypothalamus or amygdala? That's a hard one to swallow.Footnote1 The FFA and FBA have been dissociated with scanning at high resolution.ReferenceW. Zhou, D. Chen (2008). Encoding Human Sexual Chemosensory Cues in the Orbitofrontal and Fusiform Cortices Journal of Neuroscience, 28 (53), 14416-14421 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3148-08.2008Chemosensory communication of affect and motivation is ubiquitous among animals. In humans, emotional expressions are naturally associated with faces and voices. Whether chemical signals play a role as well has hardly been addressed. Here, we use functional magnetic resonance imaging to show that the right orbitofrontal cortex, right fusiform cortex, and right hypothalamus respond to airborne natural human sexual sweat, indicating that this particular chemosensory compound is encoded holistically in the brain. Our findings provide neural evidence that socioemotional meanings, including the sexual ones, are conveyed in the human sweat.... Read more »

  • July 17, 2011
  • 11:27 AM

The Google Stroop Effect?

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

The Google logo.Notice the logo is multi-colored (as pointed out by Neurobonkers). Seeing "Google" printed in a solid color (or in any other font, for that matter) would likely result in a Stroop effect, or a slower response time in identifying the color of the font, relative to that of a neutral word.Is Google making us stupid?That question, and its original exposition in The Atlantic, has been furthering the career of Nicholas G. Carr. His subsequent book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, expanded upon his broader thesis that the internet is damaging to our cognitive capacity and the way we think. Numerous writers, both pro and con, have debated whether the internet and social networking sites (and computers in general) are harmful, so I won't belabor that point here. Instead, I'll cover a new article in Science that purportedly found Google Effects on Memory (Sparrow et al., 2011).Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our FingertipsThe paper by Sparrow et al. (2011) conducted four experiments to determine whether the ability to access previously learned information reduces the effort put forth in remembering and retrieving the information. Specifically, the authors view the internet as a form of transactive memory, a means to offload some of the daily cognitive burden from our brains to an external source. Or, as succinctly expressed in ars technica, why bother to remember when you can just use Google?This is nothing new, nor is it something dependent on the internet. In 1985 Wegner et al. (PDF) examined the way that married couples can have a division of labor along the lines of which facts to remember (Bohannon, 2011):For example, a husband might rely on his wife to remember significant dates, while she relies on him to remember the names of distant friends and family—and this frees both from duplicating the memories in their own brains. Sparrow wondered if the Internet is filling this role for everyone, representing an enormous collective act of transactive memory. Another example is illustrated by the phenomenon of the open book test. If students know they can use their textbooks to answer questions on an exam, they may put forth less effort into rote memorization of facts, and may instead learn the organization of each chapter, familiarizing themselves with where particular facts are located within the text. That indeed is what was demonstrated in Experiments 3 and 4, but in terms of accessing the information online or from a computer's hard drive.The Google Stroop EffectExperiment 1 asked whether the participants were primed to access computer-related words when faced with difficult trivia questions, relative to when they answered easy trivia questions (examples below).Appendix A: Easy Questions1. Are dinosaurs extinct?2. Was Moby Dick written by Herman Melville?3. Is the formula for water H20?4. Is a stop sign red in color?5. Are there 24 hours in a day?. . .16. Does a triangle have 3 sides?Appendix B: Hard Questions1. Does Denmark contain more square miles than Costa Rica?2. Did Benjamin Franklin give piano lessons?3. Does an Italian deck of card contain jacks?4. Did Alfred Hitchcock eat meat?5. Are more babies conceived in February than in any other month?. . .16. Is a quince a fruit?The way the authors assessed automatic priming of internet- and computer-related words is by using a modified version of the ever-popular Stroop test. Name the font color of these words but don't read the words themselves:REDBLUEGREENNow do the same for this set of words:RED BLUE GREENBet you were faster for the first set. That's because reading is a much more automatic process than naming the ink color in which the words are printed. This conflict between response options produces interference and slows reaction times (RTs) in the task.The modified Stroop task used by Sparrow et al. relied on attentional salience rather than response conflict. Instead of color words, the participants viewed words related to computers and search engines, or words not related to these things:This color naming contained 8 target words related to computers and search engines (e.g., Google, Yahoo, screen, browser, modem, keys, internet, computer), and 16 unrelated words (e.g., Target, Nike, Coca Cola, Yoplait, table, telephone, book, hammer, nails, chair, piano, pencil, paper, eraser, laser, television).First off, you'll note that there are twice as many control words as there are computer words1. More importantly, you'll also notice that the unrelated words included prominent brand names (some of which are strongly associated with a particular color) and a grab bag of nouns from different semantic categories (furniture, tools, writing implements, musical instrument, etc.). The Google logo is multi-colored (as we've said before), and the current Yahoo logo is purple (it used to be red).Hmm. So already we're looking at quite a confound. Nonetheless, the authors expected a larger Stroop effect for the search engines for different reasons:In this case, we expect participants to have computer terms in mind, because they desire access to the information which would allow them to answer difficult questions. Participants are presented with words in either blue or red, and were asked to press a key corresponding with the correct color. At the same time, they were to hold a 6 digit number in memory, creating cognitive load.Why? Why oh why did the authors want to create a cognitive load during the Stroop? This turns the whole study into a dual task experiment, requiring the participants to multi-task: a key press for red or blue (which requires retrieval of ... Read more »

  • April 8, 2009
  • 05:17 AM

The paper formerly known as “Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience”

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

Voodoo no more!The paper everyone loves (or loves to hate) has a new name.1 Through a number of channels [The Chronicle of Higher Education via @vaughanbell, Ed Vul's website, and Neuroskeptic], The Neurocritic has learned that the "Voodoo Correlations" have been downgraded to mere "Puzzlingly High Correlations." The field of social neuroscience has been spared as well, because the full title of the paper is now "Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition" (PDF).By now, most neuroimagers and cognitive neuroscientists have heard about that controversial (some would say inflammatory) paper by Ed Vul and colleagues, summarized in this post.2 In the article, Vul et al. claimed that over half of the fMRI studies that were surveyed used faulty statistical techniques to analyze their data:...using a strategy that computes separate correlations for individual voxels, and reports means of just the subset of voxels exceeding chosen thresholds. We show how this non-independent analysis grossly inflates correlations, while yielding reassuring-looking scattergrams. This analysis technique was used to obtain the vast majority of the implausibly high correlations in our survey sample.Needless to say, authors of the criticized papers were not pleased. Two rebuttals were released online shortly thereafter: one by Jabbi et al. (PDF) -- here's the response to that rebuttal -- and an invited reply by Lieberman et al. (PDF).That was back in January, after the manuscript had been accepted for publication by Perspectives on Psychological Science in late December 2008. Now [finally], the paper has been officially published in the May 2009 issue of the journal, with an introduction (PDF) by Ed Diener, the editor. Also included are six Commentaries by assorted authors and a Reply to the Commentaries by Vul et al. (PDF).I haven't had time to read all the commentaries and rebuttals yet, but the Editor's Introduction is worth a quick mention for the issues it raises about peer review and publication in these modern times.PREPUBLICATION DISSEMINATIONAs soon as I accepted the Vul et al. article, I heard from researchers about it. People around the globe saw the article on the Internet, and replies soon appeared as well. Although my plan was to publish the article with commentary, the appearance of the article on the Internet meant that researchers read the article without the accompanying commentaries and replies that I had planned to publish with it.In some fields such as economics, it is standard practice to widely disseminate articles before they are published, whereas in much of psychology this has been discouraged. An argument in favor of dissemination is that it speeds scientific communication in a fast-paced world where journal publication is often woefully slow. An argument against dissemination of articles before publication is that readers do not have the opportunity to simultaneously see commentary and replies. ... In the Internet age, the issue of prepublication distribution becomes all the more important because an article can reach thousands of readers in a few hours. Given the ability of the Internet to communicate so broadly and quickly, we need greater discussion of this issue.Bloggers have discussed this specific issue months ago. For example, as noted in Mind Hacks,The paper was accepted by a peer-reviewed journal before it was released to the public. The idea that something actually has to appear in print before anyone is allowed to discuss it seems to be a little outdated (in fact, was this ever the case?).And The Neurocritic opined that...[The aggrieved authors] are not keeping up with the way that scientific discourse is evolving. Citing "in press" articles in the normal academic channels is a frequent event; why should bloggers, some of whom are read more widely than the authors' original papers, refrain from such a practice? Is it the "read more widely" part?...and in The Voodoo of Peer Review asked:Are blogs good or bad for the enterprise of scientific peer review? At present, the system relies on anonymous referees to provide "unbiased" opinions of a paper's (or grant's) merits. For today, the discussion will focus on peer review of papers in scientific journals....[An] article [in Seed Magazine] begins:Few endeavors have been affected more by the tools and evolution of the internet than science publishing. Thousands of journals are available online, and an increasing number of science bloggers are acting as translators, often using lay language to convey complex findings previously read only by fellow experts within a discipline. Now, in the wake of a new paper challenging the methodology of a young field, there is a case study for how the internet is changing the way science itself is conducted.Really? Maybe that's true for Biological and Social Sciences, but certainly not for Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science, Quantitative Biology, Quantitative Finance and Statistics (see then raises the point that online bloggers and commenters may be discussing various versions of the manuscript:Another problem that has arisen in terms of Internet “publication” of the article and the Internet replies is that different individuals will have read different versions of the article. A single reader is unlikely to read more than one version of the article and will therefore often not see later corrections and changes. Furthermore, the commentaries are to some extent replies to different versions of the article and therefore might not be entirely on-target for the final version. This makes it difficult to fully understand the arguments because comments and replies might not be to the most current versions of articles, and it is impossible to fully correct this because the back-and-forth of revisions could continue indefinitely.So there's never a final version of the article because revisions continue indefinitely?? Or are the accepted and final versions of the manuscript so radically different [why, I might ask] that a discussion of the initially accepted version is misleading? Or instead, is it the online commenters who are "revising" the article ad infinitum? Will Diener's editorial be clarified in a future edition, thus rendering moot my confusion in this particular post?At any rate, Diener also discusses ethical issues surrounding the questionnaire that Vul et al. distributed to the authors. Some believed they were unwitting participants in Human Subjects research and did not give their informed consent (Diener disagreed). Not surprisingly, the "article tone" was another source of contention, and here Diener agreed to change the original "Voodoo" title. Finally, some of the aggrieved authors disputed the accuracy of the entire paper, suggesting that some (if not all) of their research was incorrectly classified. But in the end, the editor defers to the readers, who will judge the article and comments and form their own opinions.I believe that the debate can itself stimulate useful discussions about scientific practices and communication. Further discussion of the issues should now take place in journals that are focused on imaging and neuroscience, so that the readers there can judge and benefit from the ensuing discussions.I believe that further discussion of the issues can also take place on blogs that are focused on imaging and neuroscience. So feel free to discuss at length. Leave your questions and observations in the comments section of this post!Footnotes1 See The Voodoo of Peer Review for a preview of this issue.2 You can also read a quick overview at Scan Scandal Hits Social Neuroscience, and more in-depth commentary in the post Voodoo Schadenfreude. And a comprehensive list of links about the the paper is located here.Ed Diener (2009). Editor's Introduction to Vul et al. (2009) and Comments. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4 (3).Complete List of References (from PERSPECTIVES ON PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE, Vol. 4, Issue No. 3 · May 2009)Editor's Introduction to Vul et al. (2009) and CommentsEd Diener Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social CognitionEdward Vul, Christine Harris, Piotr Winkielman, and Harold Pashler Commentary on Vul et al.'s (2009) "Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition"Thomas E. Nichols and Jean-Baptist Poline Big Correlations in Little Studies: Inflated fMRI Correlations Reflect Low Statistical Power--Commentary on Vul et al. (2009)Tal Yarkoni Correlations in Social Neuroscience Aren't Voodoo: Commentary on Vul et al. (2009) Matthew D. Lieberman, Elliot T. Berkman, and Tor D. Wager Discussion of "Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition" by Vul et al. (2009)Nicole A. Lazar Correlations and Multiple Comparisons in Functional Imaging: A Statistical Perspective (Commentary on Vul et al., 2009)Martin A. Lindquist and Andrew Gelman Understanding the Mind by Measuring the Brain: Lessons From Measuring Behavior (Commentary on Vul et al., 2009)Lisa Feldman Barrett Reply to Comments on "Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition"Edward Vul, Christine Harris, Piotr Winkielman, and Harold Pashler... Read more »

Ed Diener. (2009) Editor's Introduction to Vul et al. (2009) and Comments. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4(3).

  • March 26, 2011
  • 07:04 PM

Pharmacological Misinformation Foisted on Unsuspecting Public

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

An article from January is making the rounds again. One in nextgov's exposé-like series on America's Broken Warriors, it highlighted the fact that 20% of U.S. active duty troops are on psychotropic medications. While this may not be a good thing, the article was filled with erroneous information about specific psych meds and general scare-mongering from antipsychiatry "experts" pitching their books. Let's take a look.Military's drug policy threatens troops' health, doctors sayBy Bob Brewin 01/18/2011Army leaders are increasingly concerned about the growing use and abuse of prescription drugs by soldiers, but a Nextgov investigation shows a U.S. Central Command policy that allows troops a 90- or 180-day supply of highly addictive psychotropic drugs before they deploy to combat contributes to the problem. The CENTCOM Central Nervous System Drug formulary includes drugs like Valium and Xanax, used to treat depression, as well as the antipsychotic Seroquel, originally developed to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, mania and depression.1. Valium (diazepam) and Xanax (alprazolam) are not used to treat depression. These sedative-hypnotic benzodiazepine medications are primarily used to treat anxiety disorders.2. The atypical antipsychotic Seroquel (quetiapine) was originally developed to treat schizophrenia, although now it is prescribed for bipolar disorder and major depression. Off-label usage of quetiapine, including as a sleep aid, is controversial and I won't be discussing it further here. That topic could easily take up several posts of its own.The article continues:A June 2010 internal report from the Defense Department's Pharmacoeconomic Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio showed that 213,972, or 20 percent of the 1.1 million active-duty troops surveyed, were taking some form of psychotropic drug: antidepressants, antipsychotics, sedative hypnotics, or other controlled substances. Dr. Grace Jackson, a former Navy psychiatrist, told Nextgov she resigned her commission in 2002 "out of conscience, because I did not want to be a pill pusher." She believes psychotropic drugs have so many inherent dangers that "the CENTCOM CNS formulary is destroying the force," she said.Here we see Dr. Jackson's antipsychiatry agenda first established. All psych drugs are bad. Also note that Dr. Jackson resigned in 2002, before the war in Iraq began on March 20, 2003. So she doesn't have first hand experience with current prescribing practices or the effects of these medications on troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is what the article is about.We also have quotes from one of the leading antipsychiatry advocates, Dr. Peter Breggin:Dr. Peter Breggin, an Ithaca, N.Y., psychiatrist who testified before a House Veterans Affairs Committee last September on the relationship between medication and veterans' suicides, said flatly, "You should not send troops into combat on psychotropic drugs." Medications on the CENTCOM CNS formulary can cause loss of judgment and self-control and could result in increased violence and suicidal impulses, Breggin said.Dr. Breggin's credibility as an expert witness has been repeatedly questioned, however. I agree that mentally ill troops should not be sent into combat, but will also point out that untreated and unmedicated psychiatric disorders in a war zone can cause increases in violence and suicidal behavior.Back to Dr. Jackson:Jackson, the former Navy psychiatrist, now has a civilian practice in Greensboro, N.C. She said at least one drug on the CENTCOM formulary -- Depakote, an anticonvulsant, which military doctors prescribe for mood control -- carries serious physical risks for troops.Really? Depakote (valproic acid) is an antiseizure medication also used to treat bipolar disorder. I would like to see statistics on how frequently it's prescribed for "mood control" in soldiers without bipolar disorder.1 Depakote is toxic to certain cells, including hair cells in the ears, and can lead to hearing loss. Troops in a howitzer battery who already run the risk of hearing loss should not take Depakote, she said.3. Depakote is certainly not without its adverse effects, but hearing loss is an extremely rare side effect.2 In a study of 21 patients taking valproic acid (VPA) to control seizures, there were no differences in hearing thresholds between 125 and 16,000 Hz compared to age- and sex-matched controls (Incecik et al., 2007). In addition, there was no relationship between duration or dosage of drug and hearing levels.The medication also can cause what she calls "cognitive toxicity," also known as Depakote dementia, impairing a person's ability to think and make decisions. Jackson said that while Depakote has been investigated as an adjunct therapy for cancer, its use has been limited due to the drug's effects on cognition.4. Contrary to the notion of "Depakote dementia", VPA has been recognized for its potential to treat Alzheimer's disease (Nalivaeva et al., 2009; Zhang et al., 2010). VPA is a histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitor that might be able to prevent amyloid-beta aggregation in Alzheimer's disease by increasing the expression of clusterin, or apolipoprotein J (Nuutinen et al., 2010). This would in turn prevent the accumulation of amyloid plaques, a pathological feature in the brains of those with Alzheimer's.While it's possible that VPA could produce impairments in some cognitive domains, proper studies are difficult because you have to control for the length of illness in untreated patients (since cognitive deficits can be caused by the disorder itself). One such report on currently medicated (n=33) and currently unmedicated (n=32) patients with bipolar depression failed to find group difference in visual memory and sustained attention (Holmes et al., 2008). Unfortunately, this study collapsed across patients on lithium and valproic acid. Further, the groups weren't matched on age, sex, and depression scores. Finally, the medicated patients were more depressed, which might be expected to worsen performance on its own.A double-blind cross-over design in healthy controls administered a relatively high dose of VPA for two weeks (800 mg the first week, 1,000 mg the second). There were no changes in memory, concentration, perceptual speed, motor speed, and subjective ratings relative to placebo (Trimble & Thompson, 1981). The drug did, however, slow response times in a category decision task. A review of the literature on cognition and anticonvulsants concluded: "Overall, deficits are subtle, especially in the therapeutic range" for valproic acid (Goldberg & Burdick, 2001). Not exactly a ringing endorsement for cognitive toxicity and Depakote dementia.On to the next drug:The antidepressant Wellbutrin, also on the CENTCOM formulary, likely poses a long-term risk of Parkinson's disease, especially for older troops, said Jackson, author of Drug-Induced Dementia: A Perfect Crime (AuthorHouse, 2009).5. I found no published, peer-reviewed evidence that the antidepressant Wellbutrin (bupropion) increases the long-term risk of developing Parkinson's disease. [Guess we'll have to buy her book ... Read more »

Holmes MK, Erickson K, Luckenbaugh DA, Drevets WC, Bain EE, Cannon DM, Snow J, Sahakian BJ, Manji HK, & Zarate CA Jr. (2008) A comparison of cognitive functioning in medicated and unmedicated subjects with bipolar depression. Bipolar disorders, 10(7), 806-15. PMID: 19032712  

Incecik F, Akoglu E, Sangün O, Melek I, & Duman T. (2007) Effects of valproic acid on hearing in epileptic patients. International journal of pediatric otorhinolaryngology, 71(4), 611-4. PMID: 17270285  

Thompson PJ, & Trimble MR. (1981) Sodium valproate and cognitive functioning in normal volunteers. British journal of clinical pharmacology, 12(6), 819-24. PMID: 6803819  

  • March 15, 2009
  • 12:52 AM

I Know What You Sweated Last Summer

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

From the authors who first brought you "sexual sweat" (Zhou & Chen, 2008)...Be afraid... be very afraid and prepare yourself for the sequel: "FEARFUL SWEAT" (Zhou & Chen, 2009)!!!In case you didn't know that "sexual sweat" (collected from men watching porn) differs from ordinary sweat, the results of an fMRI experiment suggested that the orbitofrontal cortex and the fusiform region in 20 female participants responded differently when smelling the two substances (Zhou & Chen, 2008). However, we don't know anything specific about the unique chemical composition of sweat obtained from sexually aroused men, and why it resulted in differential brain activity in women who could not identify the odor as "sweaty/human" (see When I Get That Feeling, I Need Sexual Sweating).Nonetheless, in the present study Zhou and Chen (2009) wanted to determine the effects of another putative chemosensory signal on the perception of emotional expressions in faces. Specifically, as they explain below......we conducted two experiments focused on the effect of a fear-related chemosignal (sweat collected from donors viewing horror videos) in an emotion-identification task. We used the same type of olfactory stimuli (emotional sweat collected on gauze pads and gauze pads with no sweat) throughout, but varied the effectiveness of the visual input by varying the ambiguity of the facial emotions (from somewhat happy to ambiguous to somewhat fearful). Our manipulation of ambiguity was achieved through morphing between happy and fearful faces [as shown in Fig. 1a].Fig. 1a (Zhou & Chen, 2009). Examples of the morphed faces of two actors. For each actor, we selected seven morphs, ranging from somewhat happy to somewhat fearful. These faces were judged to be fearful 20% to 80% of the time in our pilot experiment, in the absence of any olfactory stimuli. Specifically, the Level 4 morph for each actor was the most ambiguous, judged to be fearful in the pilot study 45% to 55% of the time. And what about the olfactory stimuli obtained from the male sweat donors?On the day of each session, they wore next to their skin a new T-shirt (provided by the experimenter), to prevent odor contamination by their regular clothes. During each session, they kept a 4- x 4-in. pad (rayon-polyester blend for maximum absorbance) under each armpit while they watched each of three 20-min video segments intended to produce the emotions of fear (horror movies), happiness (slapstick comedies), and neutrality, respectively. Different videos were shown in each session. During the videos, participants’ heart rate was recorded... After watching each video, the donors rated how angry, fearful, happy, neutral, and sad they felt during the video, using a 100-mm visual analog scale. From each donor, we selected the pads worn during the 20-min videos that elicited the highest level of self-reported happy feelings and the highest level of self-reported fearful feelings. So the 48 young female subjects (mean age 19.6 years) viewed the various faces while exposed to different olfactory stimuli, and decided whether they were happy or fearful. Results indicated that on average they were significantly more likely to identify the most ambiguous morph as fearful when smelling the fearful sweat relative to the control condition (which, unfortunately, was a rayon-polyester pad with no sweat). Although the likelihood of identifying an ambiguous face as fearful did not differ between the happy sweat and control conditions, there was no direct statistical comparison between the two sweat conditions, which would seem to be a problem.adapted from Fig. 2b (Zhou & Chen, 2009). Nevertheless, there was some evidence that male horror movie sweat was able to bias the women towards viewing an ambiguous face as fearful, and this was not due to the pleasantness (or lack thereof) or intensity of the olfactory stimulus. I'd be curious to see how the "sweat of neutrality" and the "sweat of sexual arousal" [as identified by Zhou & Chen, 2008) in their earlier study] would influence emotion recognition judgments...ReferencesZhou W, Chen D. (2008). Encoding Human Sexual Chemosensory Cues in the Orbitofrontal and Fusiform Cortices. Journal of Neuroscience, 28 (53), 14416-14421.Zhou, W., & Chen, D. (2009). Fear-Related Chemosignals Modulate Recognition of Fear in Ambiguous Facial Expressions. Psychological Science, 20 (2), 177-183. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02263.xIntegrating emotional cues from different senses is critical for adaptive behavior. Much of the evidence on cross-modal perception of emotions has come from studies of vision and audition. This research has shown that an emotion signaled by one sense modulates how the same emotion is perceived in another sense, especially when the input to the latter sense is ambiguous. We tested whether olfaction causes similar sensory modulation of emotion perception. In two experiments, the chemosignal of fearful sweat biased women toward interpreting ambiguous expressions as more fearful, but had no effect when the facial emotion was more discernible. Our findings provide direct behavioral evidence that social chemosignals can communicate emotions and demonstrate that fear-related chemosignals modulate humans’ visual emotion perception in an emotion-specific way—an effect that has been hitherto unsuspected.Bonus! See sensory psychologist and olfactory specialist Avery Gilbert's take on these two studies in Basic Instinct: The Smell of Fear and Sex.TAG body spray for sick cats. "This spray is definitely not for me."... Read more »

  • April 23, 2011
  • 05:26 AM

Irresponsible Press Release Gives False Hope to People With Tourette's, OCD, and Schizophrenia

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

A study on electrophysiological recordings from single neurons in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of two monkeys trained to perform a visual target discrimination task (Lennert & Martinez-Trujillo, 2011) has supposedly given new hope to patients with a diverse array of neurological and psychiatric conditions, according to a press release:Filters That Reduce ‘brain Clutter’ IdentifiedScienceDaily (Apr. 19, 2011) — Until now, it has been assumed that people with conditions like ADHD, Tourette syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia -- all of whom characteristically report symptoms of "brain clutter" -- may suffer from anomalies in the brain's prefrontal cortex.Damage to this brain region is often associated with failure to focus on relevant things, loss of inhibitions, impulsivity and various kinds of inappropriate behaviour. So far, exactly what makes the prefrontal cortex so essential to these aspects of behaviour has remained elusive, hampering attempts to develop tools for diagnosing and treating these patients.But new research by Julio Martinez-Trujillo, a professor in McGill University's Department of Physiology and Canada Research Chair in Visual Neuroscience, has brought new hope to these patients. He believes the key to the "brain clutter" and impulsivity shown by individuals with dysfunctional prefrontal cortices lies in a malfunction of a specific type of brain cell. Martinez-Trujilo and his team have identified neurons in the dorsolateral sub-region of the primate prefrontal cortex that selectively filter out important from unimportant visual information. The key to the normal functioning of these "filter neurons" is their ability to, in the presence of visual clutter, selectively and strongly inhibit the unimportant information, giving the rest of the brain access to what is relevant.I am so flabbergasted by the number of misleading statements that I don't know where to begin. Let's take them in the order of occurrence."Until now" - This phrase implies that the study has refuted the assumption that ADHD, Tourette's, OCD, and schizophrenia are all associated with abnormalities in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). In fact, individuals with these disorders (and their PFCs) were not evaluated."brain clutter" - What does this mean? I'm not familiar with it as a technical term, nor how the phenomenon is manifest in all four of the above disorders. This issue is relatively minor."anomalies in the brain's prefrontal cortex" - The human PFC covers a large and diverse area of the brain.Fig. 1 (Fuster, 2002). Three views of the cerebral hemispheres with the areas of the prefrontal cortex numbered in accord with Brodmann’s cytoarcitectonic map.Neuroimaging findings in ADHD, Tourette's, OCD and schizophenia are not uniform, and the implicated subregions of PFC are not the same. For example, OCD has been associated with overactivity in the orbitofrontal cortex (Menzies et al., 2008) while schizophrenia is associated with altered activation of dorsolateral PFC (Volk & Lewis, 2010).1 This is highly relevant because as we'll see, the monkey neurons under investigation were in a specific region analogous to Brodmann area 46 in human dorsolateral PFC."Damage to this brain region" and the subsequent laundry list of altered behaviors - not all associated with damage to BA 46."brought new hope to these patients" - This is by far the most egregious falsehood of the entire press release. I find it to be utterly irresponsible.None of these claims were made in the paper itself, which examined firing rates of neurons in the principal sulcus of two rhesus macaque monkeys trained to perform a color-rank target discrimination task with moving random dot patterns.Figure adapted from the press release. The pinkish highlighted area of the brain is the principal sulcus region where neuron activity was recorded.The authors summarize the results below. You'll notice there's no mention of developing "tools for diagnosing and treating these patients" or bringing "new hope to these patients."Highlights► Interstimulus ordinal distance modulates attentional-filtering strength in monkeys ► Interstimulus ordinal distance modulates target selection by prefrontal neurons ► Varying suppression of distracters by dlPFC neurons determines attentional filtering ► Target enhancement by dlPFC neurons remains invariable with changes in performanceHere's the link for the original press release from McGill University. If you are so inclined:Contact: Katherine Gombay, Media Relations Office, McGill University - Tel.: 514 398-2189 Footnote1 I'm skipping the complexities of multiple fronto-striato-thalamic circuits.ReferencesFuster JM. (2002). Frontal lobe and cognitive development. J Neurocytol. 31:373-85.Lennert, T., & Martinez-Trujillo, J. (2011). Strength of Response Suppression to Distracter Stimuli Determines Attentional-Filtering Performance in Primate Prefrontal Neurons Neuron, 70 (1), 141-152 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2011.02.041Menzies L, Chamberlain SR, Laird AR, Thelen SM, Sahakian BJ, Bullmore ET. (2008). Integrating evidence from neuroimaging and neuropsy... Read more »

  • March 5, 2009
  • 08:08 AM

Atheists Are Neurotic and Religious Zealots Are Antisocial

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

"Religion is the Xanax of the people" (Inzlicht et al., 2009).The clever quote above is from the latest paper to garner the _______ Are Neurotic and _______ Are Antisocial style of sensationalistic headline, a study that claims to reveal the Neural Markers of Religious Conviction. I was all prepared to hate the paper, but the authors are not unreasonable in their hypotheses and predictions.But first, a little background. A year and a half ago, Amodio et al. (2007) published an eye-catching article in Nature Neuroscience that reported on supposed "hard-wired" differences in the brains of liberals and conservatives. The typical media feeding frenzy ensued, complete with simplistic headlines (and some interpretive stretching on the part of the authors).As we recounted in The Error of Prognosticating Political View by Brain Wave,1 there were:...overblown quotes:Are We Predisposed to Political Beliefs?. . ."In the past, people thought that…[political leanings were]…all environmentally influenced, a combination of biological dispositions as well as cultural shaping," says David Amodio, an assistant professor of psychology at New York University. However, a new study, led by Amodio, indicates that political bent "is not just a choice people have, but it seems to be linked to fundamental differences in the way people process information."And the baseless assertion of innate differences between the brains of liberals and conservatives:brain neurons of liberals and conservatives fire differently [sic] when confronted with tough choices, suggesting that some political divides may be hard-wired, according a study released Sunday.That study is quite relevant here because Inzlicht and colleagues used the same neural measure as Amodio et al. (2007). Both experiments used EEG recordings, specifically event-related potentials. The ERP brain waves reflect electrophysiological activity recorded remotely from the scalp. While it's great for determining the temporal parameters of neural activity, it's not so great at determining where the activity is located in the brain.The brain wave of interest is the error-related negativity (ERN), recorded at the time that people make mistakes in a task:The ERN is evident as a large negative polarity peak in the event-related brain potential waveform that occurs when people make errors in reaction time tasks. It begins at the moment of the error and reaches a maximum about 100 milliseconds later (see Gehring et al., 1993, PDF). It is largest at fronto-central scalp locations and appears to come from an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex...There is some disagreement about what the ERN wave represents: a direct response to the mismatch between the intended action and the actual one, a more generic response to conflict in general, or an emotional response to f***ing up. And because EEG is recorded from the scalp, one cannot say for certain that the anterior cingulate is the sole origin.What does all this have to do with that old time religion? Inzlicht et al. review the neuropsychology of anxiety and how religion serves to quell the angst:XANAX OF THE PEOPLEOne of religion’s primary functions may be to help people cope with existential uncertainty. In the words of St. Ambrose (ca. 390 AD), ‘‘amid the agitations of the world, the Church remains unmoved; the waves cannot shake her. While around her everything is in a horrible chaos, she offers to all the shipwrecked a tranquil port where they will find safety’’ (quoted in Durant, 1950, p. 79). Religion provides people with a meaning system that helps them navigate through and understand an infinitely complex and uncertain world (Peterson, 1999). It meets the fundamental need to comprehend the deepest problems of existence. Scholars of religion, from James (1902/2002) to Durkheim (1912/1954), have noted that religion imbues life with motivation, purpose, and meaning.What does anxiety have to do with the ERN wave?? It's larger in those with anxiety disorders, as Hajcak et al. (2004) have noted. And the hypothesis of the present paper?How is it that religion can bring about both peace of mind and zealous conviction? We suggest that religious conviction buffers against anxiety by providing relief from the experience of uncertainty and error, and in so doing, strengthening convictions and narrowing attention away from inconsistencies. We hypothesize that this muted response to uncertainty and error is evident neurophysiologically such that religious conviction is associated with reduced activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a cortical system involved in a form of attention that serves to regulate both cognitive and emotional processing...Although it's simplistic of them to say the ERN reflects only ACC activity, they did avoid some of the pitfalls of Amodio et al.'s paper by taking into account personality factors that can influence this brain wave (hence, the "neurotic" and "antisocial" title).We measured the amplitude of each participant’s ERN during the Stroop task and correlated these values with participants’ self-reported religious zeal (Study 1) and self-reported belief in God (Study 2). In both studies, we also measured other psychological variables to control for their impact on the hypothesized correlation between religious conviction and ACC activity. We expected greater religious conviction to predict lower ERN amplitudes in both studies, even after controlling for important personality traits and cognitive capacities.And that's what they found.Fig. 1C (Inzlicht et al., 2009). The relation between religious zeal and anterior cingulate cortex activity: event-related potentials (ERPs) at electrode Cz for error-related negativities (ERNs) for people high and low in religious zeal.The Religious Zeal scale was used to assess ardent religious conviction. Items included ‘‘I aspire to live and act according to my religious beliefs,’’ ‘‘My religious beliefs are grounded in objective truth,’’ and ‘‘I would support a war that defended my religious beliefs.’’ Behavioral inhibition, behavioral activation, self-esteem, and the need for cognitive closure were also assessed.However, they repeat some of the drawbacks from Amodio's paper by reporting correlations but only showing a median split (presumably) in the figure (and we don't know if this group difference is significant). We also don't know anything about the reaction times, other than the odd finding that greater religious zealotry was associated with a larger Stroop interference effect (slower for BLUE than for RED) but fewer errors.In Experiment 2 with a different group of subjects, the self-report measures were belief in God, political conservatism à la Amodio, and the Big Five personality inventory. Here, too, they found that greater religious belief correlated with smaller ERN responses to errors (and personality did not account for this).Unexplained loose ends? I see at least two of them. First, the estimated localization of the ERN response within the ACC was centimeters apart in the two groups of subjects. Granted, estimated source localization for ERP is tenuous at best (especially with only 32 electrodes), but these two spots are in different functional regions of the ACC.Fig 1D (top) and Fig 2D (bottom) - illustration of the generator for the ERN (in anterior cingulate cortex), as determined by source localization.More critically, this experiment failed to replicate Amodio's finding: there was absolutely no correlation between self-assessed conservatism and the ERN wave! [as in this figure] I don't have a high need for cognitive closure, but it appears to be a glaring omission that this was not even mentioned in the paper. I'm feeling a very large error-related negativity at the moment. Maybe I need a Xanax. Or a religious experience...Footnote1 For more on the same study, see Liberals Are Neurotic and Conservatives Are Antisocial, as well as David Amodio Responds to his neurocritics.ReferencesAmodio DM, Jost JT, Master SL, Yee CM. (2007). Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism. Nature Neurosci. 10:1246-1247.Hajcak G, McDonald N, Simons RF. (2004). Error-related psychophysiology and negative affect. Brain Cogn. 56:189-97.Michael Inzlicht, Ian McGregor, Jacob B. Hirsh, Kyle Nash (2009). Neural Markers of Religious Conviction Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02305.x... Read more »

Michael Inzlicht, Ian McGregor, Jacob B. Hirsh, & Kyle Nash. (2009) Neural Markers of Religious Conviction. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02305.x  

  • November 22, 2009
  • 04:13 PM

The Extrastriate Body Area and Visual Distortions in Anorexia

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

Contour Drawing Rating Scale (Thompson & Gray, 1995) - established as a reliable and valid measure of body size perception.Anorexia nervosa, an obsessive and unrelenting quest for thinness, is one of the most deadly psychiatric disorders. The documented mortality rate ranges from 3.3% to 18% in different studies (Herzog et al., 2000), and those with the disorder are ten times more likely to die from their illness than a comparable healthy population. A severe distortion of body image is a cardinal feature of anorexia:Disturbance in the way in which one's body weight or shape is experienced, undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of the current low body weight.An excellent recent review covered the alterations in widespread neural circuits observed in those with anorexia, along with abnormalities in the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine (Kaye et al., 2009):New brain imaging technology provides insights into ventral and dorsal neural circuit dysfunction — perhaps related to altered serotonin and dopamine metabolism — that contributes to the puzzling symptoms found in people with eating disorders. For example, altered insula activity could explain interoceptive dysfunction, and altered striatal activity might shed light on altered reward modulation in people with anorexia nervosa.Another angle to examine is the reason for such pervasive distortions of self-image. Are there literally changes in visual cortex function that correlate with this symptom?But first, a few words on some confusing neuroanatomical terminology. The striatum is a subcortical structure that consists of the caudate nucleus and the putamen. As mentioned above, the striatum is involved in reward processing (among other things). On the other hand, the primary visual cortex, or V1 (at the back of the occipital lobe) is sometimes referred to as striate cortex. Higher levels of visual cortex beyond V1 are known as extrastriate cortex. And there is where our story begins.In 2001, an fMRI study demonstrated that a specific region in extrastriate cortex, in the lateral occipitotemporal cortex, showed selective responses to pictures of bodies and body parts relative to other types of visual stimuli (Downing et al., 2001). The authors dubbed this region the "extrastriate body area" (EBA). An earlier study in epileptic patients (McCarthy et al., 1999) found regions that showed selective responses to hands, relative to faces and objects (they didn't test other body parts). Instead of using fMRI, McCarthy and colleagues recorded from electrode grids placed directly on the cortical surface for the purpose of monitoring for seizures, prior to surgical resection of the epileptogenic tissue. They observed a specific electrophysiological response, which was evoked 230 msec after the subjects viewed pictures of hands.So the question arises, are there neuroanatomical and functional changes in the extrastriate body area of individuals with anorexia? Suchan et al. (2009) quantified the structural MRIs of 15 women with anorexia and 15 healthy control women. They also localized the EBA using functional MRI -- participants viewed the stimuli used in the study of Downing et al. (freely available for download). The participants also completed the Contour Drawing Rating Scale, and the scores were compared to those given by 10 independent female raters who viewed photos of the subjects.Not surprisingly, the women with anorexia (BMI=16.0, see images of Christian Bale in Anorexia, Insomnia, and Paranoia for an example) overestimated their body size. Conversely, the healthy women (BM=22.0) underestimated their body size. And using a whole-brain voxel-based morphometric analysis, gray matter density was indeed reduced in the left EBA of the anorexic participants.Fig. 2 (Suchan et al. (2009). Activation of the extrastriate body area (EBA) localizer scans from healthy age matched controls (blue), women with anorexia nervosa (AN; green) and reduction of gray matter in the EBA of the AN group (white). Overlap between EBA activation of healthy, age matched controls and AN is coloured in light-blue.Of course, whether the neuroanatomical change is a cause or an effect of the disease is unknown, as acknowledged by the authors:Although the present study is the first to demonstrate focused gray matter volume reduction in the EBA, several open questions remain. First, the causality is unclear. Future studies using a longitudinal design should focus on the question of whether the EBA volume reductions precede the onset of the AN and therefore might be of etiological relevance or whether they are a result of the disorder.Nevertheless, preliminary evidence supports a role for visual perceptual deficits contributing to body image distortion in anorexia nervosa.I'll leave you with the music video for Tunic (Song for Karen) by Sonic Youth. It's a weirdly arty but touching depiction of Karen Carpenter's struggle with anorexia and bulimia, with Kim Gordon as Karen.dreaming, dreaming of a girl like mehey what are you waiting for - feeding, feeding meI feel like I'm disappearing - getting smaller every daybut I look in the mirror - I'm bigger in every wayTunic (Song for Karen) ------Sonic YouthReferencesDowning PE, Jiang Y, Shuman M, Kanwisher N. (2001). A cortical area selective for visual processing of the human body. Science 293:2470-3.Herzog DB, Greenwood DN, Dorer DJ, Flores AT, Ekeblad... Read more »

Suchan, B., Busch, M., Schulte, D., Grönermeyer, D., Herpertz, S., & Vocks, S. (2010) Reduction of gray matter density in the extrastriate body area in women with anorexia nervosa. Behavioural Brain Research, 206(1), 63-67. DOI: 10.1016/j.bbr.2009.08.035  

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