Post List

  • November 24, 2015
  • 04:36 PM

Cultural brokering

by Ingrid Piller in Language on the Move

Recently, I signed a contract for a revised second edition of my 2011 book Intercultural Communication: A Critical Introduction to be published in 2017. One way in which I am planning to extend the book is to have a greater … Continue reading →... Read more »

  • November 24, 2015
  • 02:52 PM

Insights into protein structure could change the future of biomedicine

by Dr. Jekyll in Lunatic Laboratories

Researchers at the University of Waterloo have discovered a new way to create designer proteins that have the potential to transform biotechnology and personalized medicines.

In a range of experiments Professor Elizabeth Meiering, in collaboration with colleagues from India and the United States, created a protein that can withstand a range of physiological and environmental conditions – a problem that has challenged chemists looking to create super stable, highly functional proteins.... Read more »

Broom, A., Ma, S., Xia, K., Rafalia, H., Trainor, K., Colon, W., Gosavi, S., & Meiering, E. (2015) Designed protein reveals structural determinants of extreme kinetic stability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1510748112  

  • November 24, 2015
  • 12:35 PM

The blue dye that helped turn a woman green

by Rosin Cerate in Rosin Cerate

When a person is unable to eat, a tube may be inserted down their throat in order to get nutrient-rich goop into their stomach. Dyes are often added to the goop to help healthcare workers ensure it doesn't accidentally end up in a patient's lungs. This situation, otherwise known as pulmonary aspiration, can lead to pneumonia or, worst case, death by asphyxiation.In one rather remarkable case, a woman being treated for multiple organ failure acquired an intense green skin colour while being tube fed a liquid meal containing Brilliant Blue FCF (FD & C Blue No. 1), a blue (surprise!) dye. The authors of the report describing the case suggested the greenness was the result of the blue dye becoming deposited in the woman’s skin, which had already taken on a yellowish color. Since her liver wasn't working properly, it wasn't able to effectively remove bilirubin, a yellow leftover from the breakdown of old red blood cells, leading to its accumulation in her blood and consequently a yellowing of her skin (jaundice).A festival attendee wearing a green zentai suit (Source)Beyond its use in tube food, Brilliant Blue FCF is often responsible for the colour of such fine consumables as blue raspberry ice cream, blue Curaçao (a citrus-flavoured liqueur), and blue mouthwash.The dye can bind to pannexin 1, a common brain protein thought to be involved in debilitating conditions such as epilepsy and ischemic stroke, suggesting it might have some use as a drug down the road.Brilliant Blue FCF has also been investigated for use during coronary artery bypass surgery where a vein is harvested from a person's leg and used to bypass a blocked up coronary artery to restore normal blood flow to their heart. During this surgery, surgeons use a surgical skin marker (containing gentian violet and isopropyl alcohol) to draw a line down the vein so they can properly orient it without twisting or kinking as they graft it onto a coronary artery. It appears using Brilliant Blue FCF instead of gentian violet results in less injury to a vein while it's being harvested and grafted. This is a big deal since vein graft failure is a serious concern after bypass surgery.ReferencesCzop M, Herr DL. 2002. Green skin discoloration associated with multiple organ failure. Critical Care Medicine 30(3):598-601.Hocking KM, Luo W, Li FD, Komalavilas P, Brophy C, Cheung-Flynn J. 2015. Brilliant blue FCF is a nontoxic dye for saphenous vein graft marking that abrogates response to injury. Journal of Vascular Surgery (DOI: 10.1016/j.jvs.2014.12.059).Wang J, Jackson DG, Dahl G. 2013. The food dye FD&C Blue No. 1 is a selective inhibitor of the ATP release channel Panx1. Journal of General Physiology 141(5):649-656. [Full text]... Read more »

Wang J, Jackson DG, & Dahl G. (2013) The food dye FD. The Journal of General Physiology, 141(5), 649-56. PMID: 23589583  

  • November 24, 2015
  • 12:10 PM

How Spider Personalities Affect Pest Control

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

They say you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. But what about with lazy spiders versus lively ones? When it comes to keeping pests at bay, the personalities of the spiders hunting them are important.

That's what two behavioral ecologists reported after watching bug dramas play out in a sunny hilltop alfalfa patch. Raphaël Royauté of North Dakota State University and Jonathan Pruitt of the University of Pittsburgh were studying the personalities of wolf spiders (Pardosa mi... Read more »

  • November 24, 2015
  • 06:19 AM

Corn Color Concepts

by Mark Lasbury in As Many Exceptions As Rules

Indian corn isn’t corn, it’s maize. But not all corn is maize, corn is actually an old word that denotes the major crop of any particular region. The colors are most beautiful, including a newly breed variety called Carl’s Glass Gem corn. The spots of color were instrumental in our understanding of DNA and gene movement, but do you think we would be so fast to decorate our houses with it if it were common knowledge how much Indian corn has in common with the causative agents of Lyme disease, malaria, and gonorrhea?... Read more »

  • November 24, 2015
  • 06:04 AM

Pinocchio and Captain Hook: Suffering from Tinnitus?

by Chiara Civardi in United Academics

You might be wondering what Pinocchio and Captain Hook have in common. Well, they are both from children’s stories, they both have prosthetics, they have issues with being honest, and they both experience interesting maritime adventures. But there is something else too: they are both annoyed by a continuous ticking sound that follows them everywhere. For Pinocchio it is Jiminy Cricket who bothers him while for Hook the crocodile is ticking merrily away. I can hear you saying: “So? What’s the point? These are fairy tales. We are grownups, we live in the real world!” Right, so let’s look at the real world equivalent to these bothersome sounds.... Read more »

  • November 24, 2015
  • 04:33 AM

Secondary conditions impacting on obesity stats in autism?

by Paul Whiteley in Questioning Answers

"Decision makers, clinicians, and researchers developing interventions for children with ASDs [autism spectrum disorders] should consider how secondary conditions may impact obesity and related activities."That was the conclusion reached in the study by Kathryn Corvey and colleagues [1] looking to: "examine obesity, overweight, physical activity, and sedentary behavior among children and youth with and without ASD using nationally representative data and controlling for secondary conditions, including intellectual and learning disabilities, ADHD, developmental delay, and other mental, physical, and medical conditions, as well as medication use."Detailing results based on information gathered from the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children's Health whereby households of some 65,000 children between the ages of 6 and 17 years were quizzed about various physical and emotional health related matters, researchers specifically focused on some 1300 children with a reported diagnosis of ASD. Various confounding variables including those 'secondary conditions' were taken into account in their quite detailed analyses.Results: following a trend noted in other peer-reviewed research (see here), the authors reported that a diagnosis of ASD was associated with elevated odds of being obese. But... when it came to adjusting their analyses for the presence of some of those secondary conditions "ASD diagnosis was no longer associated with obesity."This is interesting stuff. In line with some of the shifts in thinking about autism these days - including plurality, comorbidity clusters and the idea of differing developmental trajectories - the Corvey results imply that more care is needed before making sweeping generalisations about how 'all' autism is linked to obesity or related issues. This comes at a time when other research has talked about the timing of weight issues when it comes to autism [2]. Allied to previous research more generally looking at obesity in learning disability [3] the message is becoming a little clearer that a variety of factors 'around' autism might be the important risk issues for something like obesity or being overweight including various social factors linked to physical activity levels too (see here).Quite recently I've also become rather interested in the peer-review research related to ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) and obesity (see here) and some of the clues emerging there that are potentially relevant to some autism. Allied to what is known about the 'anthropometric' effects of certain types of medication used by some on the autism spectrum (see here), and it appears that risk of obesity and being overweight in relation to autism is at last getting the 'no sweeping generalisations needed' handling that it truly deserves.Music: Pick A Part That's New - Stereophonics.----------[1] Corvey K. et al. Obesity, Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviors in Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Matern Child Health J. 2015 Oct 29.[2] Hill AP. et al. Obesity and Autism. Pediatrics. 2015. Nov 2.[3] de Winter CF. et al. Overweight and obesity in older people with intellectual disability. Res Dev Disabil. 2012 Mar-Apr;33(2):398-405.----------Corvey K, Menear KS, Preskitt J, Goldfarb S, & Menachemi N (2015). Obesity, Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviors in Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Maternal and child health journal PMID: 26515467... Read more »

  • November 24, 2015
  • 04:30 AM

Athletic Directors’ Barriers to Hiring Athletic Trainers in High Schools

by Laura McDonald in Sports Medicine Research (SMR): In the Lab & In the Field

Lack of power, budget concerns, misconceptions about the role of an athletic trainer, and rural location emerged as primary barriers to hiring an athletic trainer by an Athletic Director in the public secondary school setting.... Read more »

Mazerolle SM, Raso SR, Pagnotta KD, Stearns RL, & Casa DJ. (2015) Athletic Directors' Barriers to Hiring Athletic Trainers in High Schools. Journal of Athletic Training, 50(10), 1059-68. PMID: 26509776  

  • November 23, 2015
  • 07:00 PM

Dopamine measurements reveal insights into how we learn

by Dr. Jekyll in Lunatic Laboratories

Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute scientists have reported measurements of dopamine release with unprecedented temporal precision in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease. The measurements, collected during brain surgery as the conscious patients played an investment game, demonstrate how rapid dopamine release encodes information crucial for human choice.... Read more »

Kenneth T. Kishida, Ignacio Saez, Terry Lohrenz, Mark R. Witcher, Adrian W. Laxton, Stephen B. Tatter, Jason P. White, Thomas L. Ellis, Paul E. M. Phillips, & P. Read Montague. (2015) Subsecond dopamine fluctuations in human striatum encode superposed error signals about actual and counterfactual reward. Proceedings of the natural sciences academy of the United States of America. info:/10.1073/pnas.1513619112

  • November 23, 2015
  • 05:14 PM

Afflictions of early automobile users

by Rosin Cerate in Rosin Cerate

The widespread introduction of the automobile in the early 20th century brought with it an unfortunate collection of new ways to get injured. In addition to collisions, people were harmed by hand cranks, detachable rims, and carbon monoxide.Back in the day, motor vehicles had to be started by hand. Within a car's engine, the up-and-down motion of pistons (produced by igniting a fuel-air mixture) is converted into rotational motion via a crankshaft. When starting up an engine, the crankshaft has to be turned by external means in order to get the conversion going. Prior to the introduction of starter motors, this was usually accomplished by inserting a removable crank into the end of the crankshaft and giving it a couple of turns. Occasionally, a backfiring engine would slam the crank backward into the palm of the person doing the cranking, sometimes twisting their wrist into an unnatural position. The resulting injuries (usually a fracture of the distal end of the radius) were collectively known as chauffeur's fracture, since chauffeurs tended to be prone to them (seeing as they did a lot of hand cranking as part of their job).A cowboy hand cranking a car (Source)A second type of injury associated with hand cranking was called chauffeurs' knee. This was an inflammation of the right knee brought about by repeatedly having to kneel to turn the engine crank of a car. I'm guessing it's a form of prepatellar bursitis, also seen in kneeling-heavy jobs such as laying carpet or scrubbing floors.According to an article I unearthed, being hit by a flying detachable rim was all the rage in 1910. At this time, inflating a car wheel involved pumping air into an inner tube lying between a tire and a rim. Rims were sometimes detachable, making it easier to switch tires. These rims were held together by a locking device, which could be compromised if it was held together by a worn screw or wasn't put together properly. In this case, a blow out of the inner tube (e.g. while filling it) could send the rim flying off at high speeds. Being struck by a rim could mean anything from a badly bruised leg to a fatal head wound.Car exhaust includes carbon monoxide, a gas capable of poisoning people by disrupting the ability of their blood to carry oxygen. As motor vehicles became more popular, people who didn't realize the danger of running them in poorly ventilated spaces started getting sick. Enough people started dying from this particular form of carbon monoxide poisoning that the press came up with a specific term for it: petromortis. This somehow failed to catch on.ReferencesAlbaugh RP. 1917. Gasoline engine exhaust-gas poisoning. American Journal of Public Health 7(8):664-666. [Full text]Cherniack MG. 1992. Diseases of unusual occupations: An historical perspective. Occupational Medicine 7(3):369-384.Emerson ML. 1911. Automobile accidents from detachable rims. California State Journal of Medicine 9(7):298. [Full text]Stephens P. 1923. So-called chauffeur's fracture. California State Journal of Medicine 21(3):115-117. [Full text]Winterberg WH. 1912. Some remarks on so-called "automobile fractures." California State Journal of Medicine 10(2):63-64 [Full text] Read more »

  • November 23, 2015
  • 12:06 PM

Gambling and Brain Frontal-Striatum Connections

by William Yates, M.D. in Brain Posts

For the remainder of 2015, Brain Posts will focus on pathological gambling and also highlight the top-viewed posts for the year.Functional connectivity is a relatively recent brain imaging technique that provides a new look at brain circuitry at rest and with tasks.Resting state connectivity using fMRI provides a snapshot of brain connections in each individual. There is increasing study of resting connectivity in individuals with disorders in neuroscience medicine compared to control populations.Saskia Koehler and colleagues in Germany recently published a study of resting fMRI connectivity in a group of problem gamblers and controls.Problem gamblers (PG) in this study were recruited via advertisement on the internet and posted notices in casinos. PB was assigned based on a questionnaire for problem gambling that included DSM-IV and ICD-10 diagnostic criteria.The key findings in the PG compared to the controls included:Increased connectivity in PG between the right middle frontal gyrus and the right striatumDecreased connectivity in the PG between the right middle frontal gyrus and other prefrontal regionsThe right ventral striatum region showed enhanced connectivity to the right middle and superior frontal gyrus and the left cerebellumThe striatum is a brain region known to be linked to the reward system. The authors note in the introduction:"Immediate reward seeking behavior has been linked to regions of the mesolimbic system, since subcortical areas such as the ventral striatum (including the nucleus accumbens) are highly active during reward processing."It makes sense that individuals with PG show hyperactivity between brain executive decision-making regions (frontal cortex) and the brain reward regions of the striatum. The fact that these increased hard-wiring effects can be seen at rest supports the strength of the brain connectivity finding. The study also found correlations between the frontal-striatum hyperactivity and two psychometric measures assessed in the study: nonplanning impulsivity and gambling craving subscores.The increased connectivity between the right frontal cortex and the striatum have been previously demonstrated in substance abuse. In the current study, alcohol intake and cigarette use were match in PG and control to address potential confounding addiction variable effects.The authors note their study supports research into therapies (psychotherapy and drugs) that target frontal-striatum connectivity in developing innovative interventions in PG.Readers with more interest in this study can access the free full-text manuscript by clicking on the PMID link in the citation below.Figure in this post is an original photo with impressionism filter from the author's files. Photo may be reproduced with link to the site.Follow the author on Twitter: WRY999 Koehler S, Ovadia-Caro S, van der Meer E, Villringer A, Heinz A, Romanczuk-Seiferth N, & Margulies DS (2013). Increased functional connectivity between prefrontal cortex and reward system in pathological gambling. PloS one, 8 (12) PMID: 24367675... Read more »

  • November 23, 2015
  • 07:02 AM

Guilt-proneness and the ability to recognize the emotions of  others

by Doug Keene in The Jury Room

Three years ago we wrote about the goodness of fit for the guilt-prone with the presiding juror position. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, there were a number of reasons supporting them in that role. And today, new research gives us another reason the guilt-prone may be more skilled at leadership—they are more able to identify […]

Related posts:
The GASP scale: A new measure of guilt and shame proneness
Should you want guilt-prone leaders for that jury?
Do we want convicted felons to express guilt and shame, or no?

... Read more »

  • November 23, 2015
  • 04:33 AM

Does eczema increase the risk of childhood speech disorder?

by Paul Whiteley in Questioning Answers

Nativity Kylo?The question posed in the title of this post reflects some interesting data published by Mark Strom & Jonathan Silverberg [1] who reported that: "Pediatric eczema may be associated with increased risk of speech disorder" on the basis of their analysis of data for some 350,000 children "from 19 US [United States] population-based cohorts."Taking into account various variables such as "sociodemographics and comorbid allergic disease" authors determined that among the 19 cohorts, the majority (12) showed some kind of connection between eczema and elevated odds of speech disorder. Further, when pooled together, the prevalence of speech disorder among those children with eczema was 4.7% compared with a figure of 2.2% for those children without eczema.One other detail to impart from the Strom/Silverberg study was how eczema plus other labels was also linked to risk of speech disorder as per the sentence: "children with both eczema and attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity or sleep disturbance had vastly increased risk of speech disorders than either by itself."Allowing for the fact that correlation is not necessarily the same as causation and that as the authors admit: "Further, prospective studies are needed to characterize the exact nature of this association" these are interesting data strengthened by the large number of participants included for study. A quick trawl of the research literature in this area suggests that childhood speech disorders may very well be associated with additional health problems [2] although not necessarily just rooted in something like eczema.The possibility that a physical ailment like eczema might have implications for a developmental condition like childhood speech disorder is a tantalising one. I've covered the preliminary idea of a 'skin-brain axis' before on this blog (see here) on the basis of data like that reported by Yaghmaie and colleagues [3] talking about atopic dermatitis and various developmental/psychiatric labels. More generally, allergic disease in infancy has been linked to various neurodevelopmental outcomes (see here) with again, the requirement for quite a bit more investigation of this possible association. Indeed, even the 'big data' of Taiwan has something to say on this topic (see here).As to any mechanism, well, outside of the suggestion of shared genetic risk between something like eczema and speech (and language) issues, the idea that the immune function (a cardinal mechanism of eczema) might play a much greater role in our health and wellbeing than merely the somatic is becoming more mainstream in these days of immune system and psychiatry intersecting (see here). The more general idea that immune features such as inflammation might be able to 'interact' with psychology is a whole new frontier of medicine (see here) and one that should be incorporated into any future research strategy. The other potentially important question outside of any aetiological association is whether or not early treatment of eczema including attending to some of the possible triggers [3] might also have important implications for the risk of developing speech disorders?Music: Blur - Trimm Trabb.----------[1] Strom MA. & Silverberg JI. Eczema Is Associated with Childhood Speech Disorder: A Retrospective Analysis from the National Survey of Children's Health and the National Health Interview Survey. J Pediatr. 2015 Oct 28. pii: S0022-3476(15)01140-3.[2] Keating D. et al. Childhood speech disorders: reported prevalence, comorbidity and socioeconomic profile. J Paediatr Child Health. 2001 Oct;37(5):431-6.[3] Yaghmaie P. et al. Mental health comorbidity in patients with atopic dermatitis. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2013 Feb;131(2):428-33.----------Strom MA, & Silverberg JI (2015). Eczema Is Associated with Childhood Speech Disorder: A Retrospective Analysis from the National Survey of Children's Health and the National Health Interview Survey. The Journal of pediatrics PMID: 26520915... Read more »

  • November 23, 2015
  • 04:30 AM

TENS to Treat Knee Pain Induced Quadriceps Inhibition?!

by Damian Pulos, Ashley Schuster in Sports Medicine Research (SMR): In the Lab & In the Field

Sensory transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation may help reduce knee pain and increase quadriceps function among people with knee pain.... Read more »

  • November 23, 2015
  • 12:58 AM

Happiness Is a Large Precuneus

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

What is happiness, and how do we find it? There are 93,290 books on happiness at Happiness is Life's Most Important Skill, an Advantage and a Project and a Hypothesis that we can Stumble On and Hard-Wire in 21 Days.The Pursuit of Happiness is an Unalienable Right granted to all human beings, but it also generates billions of dollars for the self-help industry.And now the search for happiness is over! Scientists have determined that happiness is located in a small region of your right medial parietal lobe. Positive psychology gurus will have to adapt to the changing landscape or lose their market edge. “My seven practical, actionable principles are guaranteed to increase the size of your precuneus or your money back.”The structural neural substrate of subjective happiness is the precuneus.A new paper has reported that happiness is related to the volume of gray matter in a 222.8 mm3 cluster of the right precuneus (Sato et al., 2015). What does this mean? Taking the finding at face value, there was a correlation (not a causal relationship) between precuneus gray matter volume and scores on the Japanese version of the Subjective Happiness Scale.1Fig. 1 (modified from Sato et al., 2015).  Left: Statistical parametric map (p < 0.001, peak-level uncorrected for display purposes). The blue cross indicates the location of the peak voxel. Right: Scatter plot of the adjusted gray matter volume as a function of the subjective happiness score at the peak voxel. [NOTE: Haven't we agreed to not show regression lines through scatter plots based on the single voxel where the effect is the largest??]“The search for happiness: Using MRI to find where happiness happens,” said one deceptive headline. Should we accept the claim that one small region of the brain is entirely responsible for generating and maintaining this complex and desirable state of being? NO. Of course not. And the experimental subjects were not actively involved in any sort of task at all. The study used a static measure of gray matter volume in four brain Regions of Interest (ROIs): left anterior cingulate gyrus, left posterior cingulate gyrus, right precuneus, and left amygdala. These ROIs were based on an fMRI activation study in 26 German men (mean age 33 yrs) who underwent a mood induction procedure (Habel et al., 2005). The German participants viewed pictures of faces with happy expressions and were told to “Look at each face and use it to help you to feel happy.” The brain activity elicited by happy faces was compared to activity elicited by a non-emotional control condition. Eight regions were reported in their Table 1.Table 1 (modified from Habel et al., 2005).Only four of those regions were selected as ROIs by Sato et al. (2015). One of these was a tiny 12 voxel region in the paracentral lobule, which was called precuneus by Sato et al. (2015).Image: John A Beal, PhD. Dept. of Cellular Biology & Anatomy, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center Shreveport.Before you say I'm being overly pedantic, we can agree that the selected coordinates are at the border of the precuneus and the paracentral lobule. The more interesting fact is that the sadness induction of Habel et al. (2005) implicated a very large region of the posterior precuneus and surrounding regions (1562 voxels). An area over 100 times larger than the Happy Precuneus.Oops. But the precuneus contains multitudes, so maybe it's not so tragic. The precuneus is potentially involved in very lofty functions like consciousness and self-awareness and the recollection of  autobiographical memories. It's also a functional core of the default-mode network (Utevsky et al., 2014), which is active during daydreaming and mind wandering and unconstrained thinking. But it seems a bit problematic to use hand picked ROIs from a study of transient and mild “happy” states (in a population of German males) to predict a stable trait of subjective happiness in a culturally distinct group of younger Japanese college students (26 women, 25 men).Cross-Cultural Notions of HappinessIsn't “happiness” a social construct (largely defined by Western thought) that varies across cultures?... Read more »

Sato, W., Kochiyama, T., Uono, S., Kubota, Y., Sawada, R., Yoshimura, S., & Toichi, M. (2015) The structural neural substrate of subjective happiness. Scientific Reports, 16891. DOI: 10.1038/srep16891  

  • November 23, 2015
  • 12:32 AM

Intrinsic Muscle Strength in Plantar Fasciitis

by Craig Payne in Running Research Junkie

Intrinsic Muscle Strength in Plantar Fasciitis... Read more »

  • November 22, 2015
  • 11:45 PM

Radicalization, expertise, and skepticism among doctors & engineers: the value of philosophy in education

by Artem Kaznatcheev in Evolutionary Games Group

This past Friday was a busy day for a lot of the folks in Integrated Mathematical Oncology here at the Moffitt Cancer Center. Everybody was rushing around to put the final touches on a multi-million dollar research center grant application to submit to the National Cancer Institute. Although the time was not busy for me, […]... Read more »

Gambetta, D., & Hertog, S. (2009) Why are there so many Engineers among Islamic Radicals?. European Journal of Sociology, 50(02), 201. DOI: 10.1017/S0003975609990129  

  • November 22, 2015
  • 10:30 PM

History of neuroscience: The mystery of trepanation

by neurosci in Neuroscientifically Challenged

In 1867, an archaeologist and diplomat named Ephraim George Squier sought out the help of Paul Pierre Broca, the esteemed anatomist and surgeon. He was trying to solve a mystery about an ancient Incan skull that had been given to him by a wealthy artifact collector in Peru. In addition to its age, the Neolithic skull had a unique feature: on the top of the cranium a rectangular piece of bone had been removed. The presence of several cross-cuts surrounding the hole suggested that it was not a simple battle wound, but instead the result of a surgical procedure known as trepanation.This alone would have made the skull an interesting relic, but what really sparked a scientific controversy about the skull was that many who examined it believed the surgery had been performed some time before the individual's death, as the bone seemed to show evidence of healing after the cuts had been made. While it was conceivable that Neolithic Peruvians could have performed such an operation as part of some after-death ritual, it was hard for many in Squier's time to believe these ancient peoples possessed the surgical acumen necessary to excise part of the skull of a living patient without causing death in the process. After all, the survival rate for surgical trepanation in the 1800s seldom reached 10% in the best hospitals of the day. Being unable to elicit a consensus view on the timing of the surgery from the members of the New York Academy of Medicine, Squier sent the skull to France to get an opinion from Broca, who was a distinguished expert in the study of the human skull.At the time, Broca had already made the key discovery that would cause him to be a household name among psychologists and neuroscientists: that there was a region of the frontal lobe (now known as Broca's area) that seemed to be involved specifically in the production of language. He was still in the midst of vigorously defending this hypothesis (as he would continue to do for years to come), but he immediately developed a great interest in the skull Squier sent to him.After examining the skull, Broca also was convinced that the opening was evidence of a surgical procedure done while the patient was still alive; Broca believed the patient survived for up to two weeks after trepanation. Doubts among the rest of the scientific community remained, however, until a collection of skulls was unearthed from a Neolithic grave site in central France several years later; a number of the skulls also had holes in them and the healing observable on these skulls made a more convincing argument for the idea that the holes were made well before death. In many cases, in fact, it seemed years may have passed between surgery and death.Why trepanation?The discovery of the French skulls helped to convince many of Broca's contemporaries that Neolithic peoples had the ability to perform trepanation on the living in such a way that the patient could often survive, but major questions remained as to how and why they did it. After Broca's interest had been piqued by Squier's skull he pursued answers to these other questions with characteristic determination. In fact, Broca ended up writing more papers on the reasons for prehistoric trepanation than he did on Broca's area and language.To answer the question about how trepanation was done, Broca tried using simple tools that were available to Stone Age peoples (like flint) to scrape holes in the crania of recently-deceased individuals. He found that, although it took him 50 minutes to scrape through an adult skull (counting time spent taking breaks to rest his tired hand), it could be accomplished with these crude instruments. Now we know that this scraping method was only one of several different primitive approaches to trepanation. Others included making intersecting cuts in the skull and then removing a rectangular portion of the bone (this was what was seen in Squier's skull), or making a circular cut and then removing a disc of skull.It's unclear if anesthesia was used during the operation when conducted in ancient times. Some have suggested Peruvians may have used coca (the plant cocaine would later be isolated from), as it can act as a local anesthetic. Others have hypothesized ancient peoples may have used substances like alcohol or opium to reduce pain associated with the procedure. It's also very possible, however, that no anesthesia was used. Studies of Oceanic and African cultures that still practiced trepanation in the 20th century found that many of them did so without any type of anesthesia.But the biggest mystery about trepanation is why the procedure was done. Broca thought and wrote extensively about this subject, eventually coming to favor a hypothesis that the practice was rooted in superstition. According to his view, Stone Age peoples did not understand the physiological basis of disorders like epilepsy, and thus were inclined to believe they were due to mystical events like demonic possession. Trepanation, Broca thought, may have been a way of treating these intractable mental disorders by creating a hole in the head through which demonic spirits could escape.Although there are some aspects of Broca's original hypothesis that have become discredited (such as his belief---formed due to how long it took him to scrape through an adult skull---that the procedure was conducted only on children), it is still considered by many to be a valid explanation for why trepanation was done in the ancient world. Others, however, like Broca's colleague P. Barthelemy Prunieres, argued that trepanation had a more practical justification. Prunieres reasoned that the procedure grew out of the attempted treatment of cranial fractures, which would likely have involved efforts to remove pieces of fractured bone from the site of the injury. In some cases, head injuries can cause the accumulation of blood within the cranium, which may lead to a potentially life-threatening increase in intracranial pressure; this pressure can sometimes be partially relieved by trepanation. Thus, ancient peoples may have unwittingly been performing surgery that had a real benefit for some patients. If trepanation appeared to lead to an improvement in the condition of some patients, this may have caused the procedure to be utilized more frequently even if the true reasons for the improvements were not fully understood.The perspectives of Broca and Prunieres represent two general views of ancient trepanation that each continue to receive support today: one that contends trepanation was done due to the influences of mysticism, another that argues it was a prehistoric attempt at rational surgery. It is likely, however, that different groups in different geographical areas had different reasons for performing the procedure, as trepanation was not a practice confined to one region or culture. Indeed, studies of 20th-century African tribes who still use the procedure found that reasons for trepanning varied among tribes, with some using it to treat cranial injuries and others using it to expel evil spirits.Trepanation beyond the Stone AgeTrepanation did not begin and end with ancient Stone Age peoples. It was advocated by the famous Greek physician Hippocrates to allow for the drainage of blood after a cranial injury. Galen, the preeminent surgeon of the Roman Empire, also promoted the use of the procedure for blood drainage, but added to his recommendations a discussion of its beneficial effects on intracranial pressure. In the process, Galen provided an explanation of the potential palliative effects of trepanation that crudely resembles a contemporary understanding of them. The ancient Greeks and Romans also began developing more modern tools to use in trepanation; in the 1600s a three-pronged device for drilling through the skull was invented; it was called a tre fines, from the Latin for three ends. This led to the term trephination becoming a synonym for trepanation.Trepanation continued to be used up through the 1800s for the treatment of head injuries as well as for epilepsy and other mental illnesses. Gradually, however, the practice fell out of favor in the 19th century. The mortality rates for trepanation at the time were very high, and it came to be recognized that any benefits it might offer were significantly outweighed by the risk of death associated with the surgery. Today similar procedures like craniectomy, which also involves removing part of the skull, are sometimes used to treat instances of increased intracranial pressure caused by major head trauma.We will likely never be certain of the reasons Neolithic peoples practiced trepanation. Perhaps it was due to primitive beliefs in demonic possession, or maybe it was an attempt to protect the brain from the pressure created by intracranial bleeding. Then again, it may be that both of these explanations are erroneous. We can however, feel fairly confident that trepanati... Read more »

  • November 22, 2015
  • 03:01 PM

Neuroscience and the search for happiness

by Dr. Jekyll in Lunatic Laboratories

Exercising, meditating, scouring self-help books… we go out of our way to be happy, but do we really know what happiness is? Wataru Sato and his team at Kyoto University have found an answer from a neurological perspective.... Read more »

Sato, W., Kochiyama, T., Uono, S., Kubota, Y., Sawada, R., Yoshimura, S., & Toichi, M. (2015) The structural neural substrate of subjective happiness. Scientific Reports, 16891. DOI: 10.1038/srep16891  

  • November 22, 2015
  • 09:14 AM

Are pre-registrations the solution to the replication crisis in Psychology? Not really.

by Richard Kunert in Brain's Idea

Most psychology findings are not replicable. What can be done? In his Psychological Science editorial, Stephen Lindsay advertises pre-registration as the solution, writing that “Personally, I aim never again to submit for publication a report of a study that was not preregistered”. I took a look at whether pre-registrations are effective and feasible [TL;DR: no […]... Read more »

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