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

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  • December 20, 2010
  • 02:56 PM

XMRV - Innocent on All Counts?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

A bombshell has just gone off in the continuing debate over XMRV, the virus that may or may not cause chronic fatigue syndrome. Actually, 4 bombshells. A set of papers out today in Retrovirology (1,2,3,4) claim that many previous studies claiming to have found the virus haven't actually been detecting XMRV at all.Here's the rub. XMRV is a retrovirus, a class of bugs that includes HIV. Retroviruses are composed of RNA, but they can insert themselves into the genetic material of host cells as DNA......... Read more »

Robert A Smith. (2010) Contamination of clinical specimens with MLV-encoding nucleic acids: implications for XMRV and other candidate human retroviruses. Retrovirology. info:/10.1186/1742-4690-7-112

  • December 20, 2010
  • 05:24 AM

The Almond of Horror

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Remember the 90s, when No Fear stuff was cool, and when people still said "cool"?Well, a new paper has brought No Fear back, by reporting on a woman who has no fear - due to brain damage. The article, The Human Amygdala and the Induction and Experience of Fear, is brought to you by a list of neuroscientists including big names such as Antonio Damasio (of Phineas Gage fame).The basic story is nice and simple. There's a woman, SM, who lacks a part of the brain called the amygdala. They found that ........ Read more »

Justin S. Feinstein, Ralph Adolphs, Antonio Damasio,, & and Daniel Tranel1. (2010) The Human Amygdala and the Induction and Experience of Fear. Current Biology. info:/

  • December 16, 2010
  • 04:53 PM

What Diseases Get Researched?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Dorothy Bishop (of BishopBlog) has a nice PLoS paper looking at: Which neurodevelopmental disorders get researched and why?.She took 35 "neurodevelopmental" disorders, ranging from rare genetic syndromes like Rett's, up to autism, ADHD and specific language impairment (SLI), and compared their prevalence stated in a textbook, to the number of scientific papers published about them over the past 15 years.Note that with something like Rett's, there's no question that they're problems with brain de........ Read more »

  • December 14, 2010
  • 05:15 PM

The Time Travelling Brain

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

What's the difference between walking down the street yesterday, and walking down the street tomorrow?It's nothing to do with the walking, or the street: that's the same. When seems to be something external to the what, how, and where of the situation. But this creates a problem for neuroscientists.We think we know how the fact that the brain could store the concept of "walking down the street" (or "walking" and "street"). Very roughly, simple sensory impressions are thought to get built up into........ Read more »

Nyberg L, Kim AS, Habib R, Levine B, & Tulving E. (2010) Consciousness of subjective time in the brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. PMID: 21135219  

  • December 10, 2010
  • 05:17 AM

Meditation vs. Medication for Depression

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

What's the best way to overcome depression? Antidepressant drugs, or Buddhist meditation?A new trial has examined this question: Segal et al. The short answer is that 8 weeks of mindfulness mediation training was just as good as prolonged antidepressant treatment over 18 months. But like all clinical trials, there are some catches.Right mindfulness, sammā-sati, is the 7th step on the Buddha's Nobel Eightfold Path of enlightenment. In its modern therapeutic form, however, it's a secular practi........ Read more »

  • December 4, 2010
  • 07:15 AM

Autism and Old Fathers

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

A new study has provided the strongest evidence yet that the rate of autism in children rises with the father's age: Advancing paternal age and risk of autism. But questions remain.The association between old fathers and autism has been known for many years, and the most popular explanation has been genetic: sperm from older men are more likely to have accumulated DNA damage, which might lead to autism.As I've said before, this might explain some other puzzling things such as the fact that it's ........ Read more »

  • December 1, 2010
  • 04:42 PM

How To Fool A Lie Detector Brain Scan

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Can fMRI scans be used to detect deception?It would be nice, although a little scary, if they could. And there have been several reports of succesful trials under laboratory conditions. However, a new paper in Neuroimage reveals an easy way of tricking the technology: Lying In The Scanner.The authors used a variant of the "guilty knowledge test" which was originally developed for use with EEG. Essentially, you show the subject a series of pictures or other stimui, one of which is somehow special........ Read more »

  • November 30, 2010
  • 01:26 PM

Exercise and Depression: It's Complicated

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Some ideas seem so nice, so inoffensive and so harmless, that it seems a shame to criticize them.Take the idea that exercise is a useful treatment for depression. It's got something for everyone.For doctors, it's attractive because it means they can recommend exercise - which is free, quick, and easy, at least for them - instead of spending the time and money on drugs or therapy. Governments like it for the same reason, and because it's another way of improving the nation's fitness. For people w........ Read more »

Harvey SB, Hotopf M, Overland S, & Mykletun A. (2010) Physical activity and common mental disorders. The British journal of psychiatry : the journal of mental science, 357-64. PMID: 21037212  

  • November 27, 2010
  • 09:35 AM

The Town That Went Mad

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Pont St. Esprit is a small town in southern France. In 1951 it became famous as the site of one of the most mysterious medical outbreaks of modern times.As Dr's Gabbai, Lisbonne and Pourquier wrote to the British Medical Journal, 15 days after the "incident":The first symptoms appeared after a latent period of 6 to 48 hours. In this first phase, the symptoms were generalized, and consisted in a depressive state with anguish and slight agitation.After some hours the symptoms became more clearly d........ Read more »

GABBAI, LISBONNE, & POURQUIER. (1951) Ergot poisoning at Pont St. Esprit. British medical journal, 2(4732), 650-1. PMID: 14869677  

  • November 26, 2010
  • 08:12 AM

Massive Magnets Reveal More Sex In the Brain

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

"Is that a 7 Tesla magnet in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?"German neuroscientists Metzger et al report on the results of a study using the latest, ultra-high-field Magnetic Resonance Imaging to measure brain activity in response to sexually arousing stimuli.Most fMRI studies are done using MRI scanners with a field strength of either 1.5 Tesla or, most commonly nowadays, 3.0 Tesla. However, a few especially forward-thinking, by which I mean wealthy, research centres have starte........ Read more »

  • November 21, 2010
  • 06:41 AM

Autism Gives You Biblical Superpowers

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

We've all heard about autistic "savants" with amazing mathematical, memory or artistic abilities. But could autism give you the power to kill 1,000 men armed only with a donkey bone?Samson was the original Chuck Norris. Granted mighty strength by God so long as he didn't cut his hair or shave, Samson's first act of heroism was ripping a lion to shreds with his bear hands. Then he moved onto people. According to the Book of Judges:"And Samson said, With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps, wi........ Read more »

  • November 17, 2010
  • 05:29 PM

Autism Following Viral Infection

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

I just discovered a remarkable case report from 1986 about a Swedish girl who developed all of the major symptoms of autism at the age of 14, following a severe brain infection.Autism generally becomes noticeable in early childhood. There are plenty of cases in which autistic people don't get diagnosed until much later in life, but the symptoms invariably turn out to go back a long way. Older children, teenagers and adults don't just go autistic overnight. Except in this case, if you believe it......... Read more »

  • November 13, 2010
  • 02:46 PM

The Limits of Neuroplasticity

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Neuroplasticity is in.Books tell us about The Brain That Changes Itself or advise us on how to Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.Now there's no doubt that the brain is plastic, able to rewire itself in response to damage or training, and that it's more so than was generally believed, say, 20 years ago. It's clearly an important and interesting field, but a little caution is warranted. Neuroplasticity can't fix everything.If the brain were infinitely plastic, brain damage would be no big deal. Y........ Read more »

  • November 9, 2010
  • 03:25 AM

Genes To Brains To Minds To... Murder?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

A group of Italian psychiatrists claim to explain How Neuroscience and Behavioral Genetics Improve Psychiatric Assessment: Report on a Violent Murder Case.The paper presents the horrific case of a 24 year old woman from Switzerland who smothered her newborn son to death immediately after giving birth in her boyfriend's apartment. After her arrest, she claimed to have no memory of the event. She had a history of multiple drug abuse, including heroin, from the age of 13. Forensic psychiatrists wer........ Read more »

Rigoni D, Pellegrini S, Mariotti V, Cozza A, Mechelli A, Ferrara SD, Pietrini P, & Sartori G. (2010) How neuroscience and behavioral genetics improve psychiatric assessment: report on a violent murder case. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 160. PMID: 21031162  

  • November 5, 2010
  • 04:45 AM

Bionic Eye Lets Blind See

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

No, really. Read all about it in a remarkable (if awkwardly named) new paper from German team Zrenner et al, Subretinal electronic chips allow blind patients to read letters and combine them to words.The device acts as an artificial retina. It's a tiny 3 x 3.1 mm panel (about ■ that size) containing an array of 1,500 individual light-sensitive microphotodiodes (38 x 40).Each sensor converts incoming light into an electrical current - the brighter, the stronger - and outputs it through a tiny e........ Read more »

Eberhart Zrenner, et al. (2010) Subretinal electronic chips allow blind patients to read letters and combine them to words. Proc. R. Soc. B. info:/10.1098/rspb.2010.1747

  • October 25, 2010
  • 05:01 PM

Absolutely Confabulous

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Confabulation is a striking symptom of some kinds of brain damage. Patients tell often fantastic stories about things that have happened to them, or that are going on now. It's a classic sign of Korsakoff's syndrome, a disorder caused by vitamin B1 deficiency due to chronic alcoholism.Korsakoff's was memorably illustrated on House (Season 1 Episode 10, to be exact). Here's a clip; unfortunately, it's overdubbed in Russian, but you can hear the original if you pay attention.Why does confabulation........ Read more »

  • October 23, 2010
  • 09:08 AM

Sex and Money on the Brain

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Back in 1991, Mark Knopfler sang"Sex and money are my major kicksGet me in a fight I like the dirty tricks"Now twenty years later a team of French neuroscientists have followed up on this observation with a neuroimaging study: The Architecture of Reward Value Coding in the Human Orbitofrontal Cortex.Sescousse et al note that people like erotic stimuli, i.e. porn, and they also like money. However, there's a difference: porn is, probably, a more "primitive" kind of rewarding stimulus, given that ........ Read more »

Sescousse G, Redouté J, & Dreher JC. (2010) The architecture of reward value coding in the human orbitofrontal cortex. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 30(39), 13095-104. PMID: 20881127  

  • October 21, 2010
  • 05:30 PM

Shock and Cure - With Magnets

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is the oldest treatment in psychiatry that's still in use today. ECT uses a brief electrical current to induce a generalized seizure. No-one knows why, but in many cases this rapidly alleviates depression - amongst other things.The problem with ECT is that it may cause memory loss. It's hotly debated how serious of a problem this is, and most psychiatrists agree that the risk is justified if the alternative is untreatable illness, but it's fair to say that whether........ Read more »

  • October 20, 2010
  • 05:38 AM

You Read It Here First...Again

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

A couple of months ago I pointed out that a Letter published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, critiquing a certain paper about antidepressants, made very similar points to the ones that I did in my blog post about the paper. The biggest difference was that my post came out 9 months sooner.Well, it's happened again. Except I was only 3 months ahead this time. Remember my post Clever New Scheme, criticizing a study which claimed to have found a brilliant way of deciding which antidepressan........ Read more »

  • October 15, 2010
  • 07:22 AM

Worst. Antidepressant. Ever.

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Reboxetine is an antidepressant. Except it's not, because it doesn't treat depression.This is the conclusion of a much-publicized article just out in the BMJ: Reboxetine for acute treatment of major depression: systematic review and meta-analysis of published and unpublished placebo and SSRI controlled trials.Reboxetine was introduced to some fanfare, because its mechanism of action is unique - it's a selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (NRI), which has no e........ Read more »

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