The following is a guest post by Stephanie Zvan. In this post, Zvan addresses a recent study of "reaction times" and IQ measurements two study groups distinguished by race. I'll let the post speak for itself, but it is worth nothing that in the ongoing discussion of race and intelligence, the complaint is commonly made that critiques of mainstream psychometrics do not pay much attention to the recent literature. This would be a case of that not happening. Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »
PESTA, B., & POZNANSKI, P. (2008) Black–White differences on IQ and grades: The mediating role of elementary cognitive tasks. Intelligence, 36(4), 323-329. DOI: 10.1016/j.intell.2007.07.004
Tuch, D. (2005) Choice reaction time performance correlates with diffusion anisotropy in white matter pathways supporting visuospatial attention. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(34), 12212-12217. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0407259102
Is there a gene for long life?Boston-based group Sebastiani et al say they've found not one but two, in RNA Editing Genes Associated with Extreme Old Age in Humans and with Lifespan in C. elegans.They took 4 groups of "oldest old" people: from New England, Italy, and Japan, and American Ashkenazi Jews. All were aged 90 or more, and many of them were 100, centenarians. As control groups, they used random healthy people who weren't especially old. The total sample size was an impressive 2105 old vs. 3044 controls.On the basis of a pilot study, they chose to look at two candidate genes, ADARB1 and ADARB2. Both are involved in post-transcriptional RNA editing, one of the steps in the process by which genetic material, DNA, controls protein synthesis. It's something every cell in the body needs to do in order to function.What happened? Their abstract makes the exciting claim that18 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in the RNA editing genes ADARB1 and ADARB2 are associated with extreme old age in a U.S. based study ... We describe replications of these findings in three independently conducted centenarian studies with different genetic backgrounds (Italian, Ashkenazi Jewish and Japanese) that collectively support an association of ADARB1 and ADARB2 with longevity.But read the whole paper and the picture is a little more complex. For ADARB1, they looked at 31 variants (SNPs). In the New England sample, which was the largest, 5 of them were statistically significantly more common in old people compared to the controls. However, none of these were significantly associated in any of the other samples, although for 3 of the 5 variants, there was some evidence of an effect in the same direction in the other samples.In ADARB2, out of 114 variants, 10 were significantly associated in the New England sample. Of these, 4 were independently significant in the Italian sample, and in the combined New England/Italian sample all 10 were still associated. But the Jewish and the Japanese samples showed a rather different picture: only 1 of the 10 associations was significant in the Jews, although several were weakly associated in the same direction, and in a pooled New England/Italian/Jewish analysis 9 were still significant. In the Japanese sample, one association was replicated but another variant was associated in the wrong direction.They also did some lab work and found that in nematode worms (C. Elegans), mutants lacking the worm equivalent of the ADARB1 and ADARB2 genes had a 50% reduced lifespan - 10 days, instead of the normal 20 - despite no obvious symptoms of illness. Hmm.I'm not quite sure what to make of this data. They looked at 4 separate, large samples, which is an excellent size by the standards of candidate gene association studies. The evidence implicating ADARB1 and (especially) ADARB2 variants in longevity is fairly convincing, although the most consistent effects came from the European-ancestry samples, suggesting that different things might be going on in other populations. This is the first research looking at these genes; ultimately, we won't know for sure until we get more. The worm data is a nice touch, but I'd like to see evidence from animals with a bit more similarity to humans, say mice.Still, suppose that these genes are associated with long life; suppose they they control the rate of the ageing process, protecting you from dying from "natural causes" too early. That doesn't mean that you'll live to an old age - it just makes it possible. If you get hit a truck or fall of a cliff, you're dead, anti-ageing genes or not.Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, born 1875, died 1997, is the oldest person on record, at 122 years. But we'll never know whether someone with the genetic potential to outlive her died in WW2, or the Cultural Revolution, or just got hit by a truck. Calment presumably had the right genes, but she was also lucky.So a trait's being genetically heritable doesn't make it pre-ordained and immutable. IQ, for example, most likely has a heritability of around 50% - some people likely have a higher potential for intellectual achievement than others. But if you're born into an abusive family, or deep poverty, or you never get a chance to go to school, you may never reach that potential. There's always that truck.Sebastiani P, Montano M, Puca A, Solovieff N, Kojima T, Wang MC, Melista E, Meltzer M, Fischer SE, Andersen S, Hartley SH, Sedgewick A, Arai Y, Bergman A, Barzilai N, Terry DF, Riva A, Anselmi CV, Malovini A, Kitamoto A, Sawabe M, Arai T, Gondo Y, Steinberg MH, Hirose N, Atzmon G, Ruvkun G, Baldwin CT, & Perls TT (2009). RNA editing genes associated with extreme old age in humans and with lifespan in C. elegans. PloS one, 4 (12) PMID: 20011587... Read more »
Sebastiani P, Montano M, Puca A, Solovieff N, Kojima T, Wang MC, Melista E, Meltzer M, Fischer SE, Andersen S.... (2009) RNA editing genes associated with extreme old age in humans and with lifespan in C. elegans. PloS one, 4(12). PMID: 20011587
I’ve been wondering what would be an appropriate Christmas post for the Language on the Move blog. Seeing that I’m deeply skeptical about all those claims about the wonderful advantages of bilingualism, a good news story à la “bilingualism helps to ward off dementia” was never going to be an option. That’s when the first [...]... Read more »
Abdelmajid Hannoum. (2009) The Harraga of Tangier. Encounters: an international journal for the study of culture and society, 231-246. info:/
Prejudice...we've all experienced it at one point or another. Defined as a preconceived belief, opinion, or judgment toward a group or person because of race, social class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc., it also means a priori beliefs that include any unreasonable attitude that is unusually resistant to rational influence. It's been the cause of countless wars and an infinite amount of unnecessary suffering. It must be put to an end once and for all! So how does today's researchers go about investigating prejudice anyway?
... Read more »
Crisp, R., & Turner, R. (2009) Can imagined interactions produce positive perceptions?: Reducing prejudice through simulated social contact. American Psychologist, 64(4), 231-240. DOI: 10.1037/a0014718
Cunningham, W., Johnson, M., Raye, C., Chris Gatenby, J., Gore, J., & Banaji, M. (2004) Separable Neural Components in the Processing of Black and White Faces. Psychological Science, 15(12), 806-813. DOI: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00760.x
Greenwald, A. (2003) Targets of discrimination: Effects of race on responses to weapons holders. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39(4), 399-405. DOI: 10.1016/S0022-1031(03)00020-9
Harris, L., & Fiske, S. (2006) Social groups that elicit disgust are differentially processed in mPFC. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2(1), 45-51. DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsl037
Olsson, A. (2005) The Role of Social Groups in the Persistence of Learned Fear. Science, 309(5735), 785-787. DOI: 10.1126/science.1113551
Steckenfinger SA, & Ghazanfar AA. (2009) Monkey visual behavior falls into the uncanny valley. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(43), 18362-6. PMID: 19822765
Wiekens, C., & Stapel, D. (2008) The Mirror and I: When private opinions are in conflict with public norms. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(4), 1160-1166. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.02.005
In a recent article in Science, Julio Mercader, of the University of Calgary, discusses his discovery of “starch granules” on surfaces of stone tools dating back to 105,000 years ago at a cave site in Mozambique. In other words, in contrast to the idea that Homo sapiens relied on a cereal-less diet of nuts, roots, [...]... Read more »
Mercader, J. (2009) Mozambican Grass Seed Consumption During the Middle Stone Age. Science, 326(5960), 1680-1683. DOI: 10.1126/science.1173966
Mark Welford and Brian Bossak (Georgia Southern University) shed doubt on the long-held conclusion that the Black Death was caused by bubonic and pneumonic plague. This news feature was written on December 22, 2009.... Read more »
Welford, M. R., & Bossak, B. H. (2009) Validation of Inverse Seasonal Peak Mortality in Medieval Plagues, Including the Black Death, in Comparison to Modern Yersinia pestis-Variant Diseases. PLoS ONE, 4(12). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008401
What could possibly be a better Christmas present than a new fossil primate? Nothing, that’s what!
The most recent addition to our family bush is a Pliopithecine from Spain named Pliopithecus canmatensis. Pliopithecoids are gibbon-like in many ways, including their long limbs, large hands, and maybe the ability to brachiate. However, the pliopithecoids are much too [...]... Read more »
Alba, D., Moyà-Solà, S., Malgosa, A., Casanovas-Vilar, I., Robles, J., Almécija, S., Galindo, J., Rotgers, C., & Mengual, J. (2009) A new species of Gervais, 1849 (Primates: Pliopithecidae) from the Middle Miocene (MN8) of Abocador de Can Mata (els Hostalets de Pierola, Catalonia, Spain) . American Journal of Physical Anthropology. DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.21114
Superheroes, virtual worlds and hindu gods: a visual genealogy of James Cameron's Avatar - based on my article "Les Avatars Bleus" (Communications, 2005). For those who don't speak French. Also, for those who simply can't be bothered to go through 30 pages of socio-babbling ;) ... Read more »
Antonio A. Casilli. (2005) [Blue Avatars, about three strategies of cultural borrowing at the heart of computer culture] Les avatars bleus, Autour de trois stratégies d’emprunt culturel au cœur de la cyberculture. Communications, 77(1), 183-209. info:/
Pascaline Le Gouar (CNRS, France) and coworkers predict that recent Ebola outbreaks are not a long-term threat to the survival of Western lowland gorillas, as long as enough gorillas remain after the initial high mortality event, and the population has a chance to rebound. This news feature was written on December 19, 2009.... Read more »
Le Gouar, P. J., Vallet, D., David, L., Bermejo, M., Gatti, S., Levréro, F., Petit, E. J., & Ménard, N. (2009) How Ebola Impacts Genetics of Western Lowland Gorilla Populations. PLoS ONE, 4(12). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008375
Last week I gave a talk to some students at the School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), at the University of Leeds. I've been an honorary Visiting Research Fellow with POLIS since April 2006, and it's a rare occasion when I'm actually on-site. In fact, this was only the second time, the first being a talk I gave in late 2007. Then, I was still a serving staff officer with NATO, and my talk was about a book I'd just published. This time, I was speaking as an academic, recently resigned from NATO service, and offering students my observations on what it's like to be a functionary in an International Organization. Despite working in some very interesting places - Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghansitan, as well as Western Europe - I couldn't honestly claim to know much about them, and my own perceptions of those experiences are very much "the view from the veranda."
That phrase is lifted from an article , written by Belgian academic Julian Eckl and published in International Political Sociology, entitled "Responsible Scholarship After Leaving the Veranda: Normative Issues Faced by Field Researchers - and Armchair Scientists." ... Read more »
Eckl, J. (2008) "Responsible Scholarship After Leaving the Veranda: Normative Issues Faced by Field Researchers-and Armchair Scientists." . International Political Sociology, 2(3), 185-203. DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-5687.2008.00044.x
A new paper in the Norwegian journal Viking offers exciting news about two less-well-known ship burials from the Avaldsnes area in Rogaland on the country's west coast. Being poorly preserved, they have been difficult to date. Bonde & Stylegar now show with dendrochronology that these are the earliest dendro-dated ship burials in Norway!... Read more »
Niels Bonde . (2009) Fra Avaldsnes til Oseberg. Dendrokronologiske undersøkelser av skipsgravene fra Storhaug og Grønhaug. Viking : tidsskrift for norrøn arkeologi, 149-168. info:/
Breaking news from the BBC -Testosterone link to aggression 'all in the mind' Work in Nature magazine suggests the mind can win over hormones... Testosterone induces anti-social behaviour in humans, but only because of our own prejudices about its effect rather than its biological activity, suggest the authors. The researchers, led by Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich, Switzerland, said the results suggested a case of "mind over matter" with the brain overriding body chemistry. "Whereas other animals may be predominantly under the influence of biological factors such as hormones, biology seems to exert less control over human behaviour," they said. Phew, that's a relief - for a minute back there I was worried we didn't have free will. But look a little closer at the study, and it turns out that all is not as it seems. The experiment (Eisenegger et al) involved giving healthy women 0.5 mg testosterone, or placebo, in a randomized double-blind manner, and then getting them to take part in the "Ultimatum Game".This is a game for two players. One, the Proposer, is given some money, and then has to offer to give a certain proportion of it to the other player, the Receiver. If the Receiver accepts the offer, both players get the agreed-upon amount of money. If they reject it, however, no-one gets anything.The Proposer is basically faced with the choice of making a "fair" offer, e.g. giving away 50%, or a greedy one, say offering 10% and keeping 90% for themselves. Receivers generally accept fair offers, but most people get annoyed or insulted by unfair ones, and reject them, even though this means they lose money (10% of the money is still more than 0%).What happened? Testosterone affected behaviour. It had no effect on women playing the role of the Receivers, but the Proposers given testosterone made significantly fairer offers on average, compared to those given placebo. That's not mind over matter, that's matter over mind - give someone a hormone and their behaviour changes.The direction of the effect is quite interesting - if testosterone increased aggression, as popular belief has it, you might expect it to decrease fair offers. Or, you might not. I suppose it depends on your understanding of "aggression". For their part, Eisenegger et al interpret this finding as suggesting that testosterone doesn't increase aggression per se, but rather increases our motivation to achieve "status", which leads to Proposers making fairer offers, so as to appear nicer. Hmm. Maybe.But where did the BBC get the whole "all in the mind" thing from? Well, after the testing was over, the authors asked the women whether they thought they had taken testosterone or placebo. The results showed that the women couldn't actually tell which they'd had - they were no more accurate than if they were guessing - but women who believed they'd got testosterone made more unfair offers than women who believed they got placebo. The size of this effect was bigger than the effect of testosterone.Is that "mind over matter"? Do beliefs about testosterone exert a more powerful effect on behaviour than testosterone itself? Maybe they do, but these data don't tell us anything about that. The women's beliefs weren't manipulated in any way in this trial, so as an experiment it couldn't investigate belief effects. In order to show that belief alters behaviour, you'd need to control beliefs. You could randomly assign some subjects to be told they were taking testosterone, and compare them to others told they were on placebo, say.This study didn't do anything like that. Beliefs about testosterone were only correlated with behaviour, and unless someone's changed the rules recently, correlation isn't causation. It's like finding that people with brown skin are more likely to be Hindus than people with white skin, and concluding that belief in Brahma alters pigmentation. It could even be that the behaviour drove the belief, because subjects were quizzed about their testosterone status after the Ultimatum Game - maybe women who, for whatever reason, behaved selfishly, decided that this meant they had taken testosterone!Overall, this study provides quite interesting data about hormonal effects on behaviour, but tells us nothing about the effects of beliefs about hormones. On that issue, the way the media have covered this experiment is rather more informative than the experiment itself.Eisenegger, C., Naef, M., Snozzi, R., Heinrichs, M., & Fehr, E. (2009). Prejudice and truth about the effect of testosterone on human bargaining behaviour Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature08711... Read more »
Eisenegger, C., Naef, M., Snozzi, R., Heinrichs, M., & Fehr, E. (2009) Prejudice and truth about the effect of testosterone on human bargaining behaviour. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature08711
There are two fundamental misconceptions surrounding the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle ten years ago this week. One is that the protests represented a "riot" and that the majority of protesters were violent. The second is that the protests were counter-productive and actually hurt the cause of reform that would benefit poor countries trying to have their voices heard. Both of these are wrong and, in fact, are just the opposite. Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »
Edelman, M. (2009) Peasant–farmer movements, third world peoples, and the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, 1999. Dialectical Anthropology, 33(2), 109-128. DOI: 10.1007/s10624-009-9109-6
The question of pacifiers (and for that matter bottles) arises when there is a new baby. In the case of Huxley, he will be breast milk fed if possible, but that involves bottle feeding at some point. Also, since our society does not practice cross nursing all Western babies go through a risk period when they begin to starve while the mother's milk is not yet in. Sometimes that is a couple of days, sometimes longer.
In any event, the question comes up, do you let a baby anywhere near a nipple that is not attached to a human breast, and a related question is do you use a pacifier if the baby seems to like the idea of sucking on absolutely everything? Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »
Cynthia R. Howard, Fred M. HowardDagger, Bruce Lanphearp, Elisabeth A. deBlieck, Shirley Eberly, & Ruth A. Lawrence*. (1999) The Effects of Early Pacifier Use on Breastfeeding Duration . Pediatrics, 103(3). info:other/
About 73,000 years ago in what is now Sumatra, Indonesia, Mount Toba exploded in the largest eruption since the appearance of Homo sapiens. This enormous eruption (a supereruption of a supervolcano in the new parlance) spewed 2800 km3 of pyroclastic material from a 100 by 30 km caldera. That is a hell of a lot – almost three times more than Yellowstone 600,000 years ago and even more than the giant (super) Yellowstone Huckleberry Ridge eruption of 2 million years ago. Toba was probably the biggest single explosive eruption in tens of millions of years.Lake Toba, Sumatra. The white dashed line marks the extent of the 73 ka caldera, which is 100 km long and 30 km wide. Landsat image from NASA.Martin Williams of the University of Adelaide is the lead author of an upcoming paper on the eruption’s environmental impact. Stanley Ambrose of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a co-author on the study, suggested in a 1998 paper that the eruption correlates to a catastrophic drop in human population. There is strong genetic evidence that such a bottleneck occurred and reduced the human population to perhaps 1,000-10,000 breeding pairs during the Middle Stone Age; the time constraints are broad but they allow the Toba eruption as a cause. From my reading of the literature, this idea is fairly well accepted, though there is by no means a consensus.The eruption covered much of the Indian subcontinent with 10-15 cm of ash and released huge amounts of aerosols like hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. There’s good evidence from geochemical markers in ice cores that the eruption had the immediate short-term effect of causing a 6-year volcanic winter – a more extreme version of the years following the 1815 Tambora, 1883 Krakatau, and 1991 Pinatubo eruptions. This 6-year period marks the beginning of the coldest 1,800 years of the Pleistocene, although the relationship between the eruption and the longer term cooling is controversial.The main contribution of the Williams et al. (2009) study is that it directly demonstrates environmental changes from the eruption across the Indian subcontinent. By examining pollen in a marine core from the Bay of Bengal and the isotopic signature of soil carbonate minerals from across central India, they show a sudden and lasting cooling and drying coincident with the ashfall. The pollen counts from the core showed a reduction in trees and wet-adapted ferns. The ... Read more »
Williams, M., Ambrose, S., van der Kaars, S., Ruehlemann, C., Chattopadhyaya, U., Pal, J., & Chauhan, P. (2009) Environmental impact of the 73ka Toba super-eruption in South Asia. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. DOI: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2009.10.009
Ambrose, S. (1998) Late Pleistocene human population bottlenecks, volcanic winter, and differentiation of modern humans. Journal of Human Evolution, 34(6), 623-651. DOI: 10.1006/jhev.1998.0219
Do countries with more mental illness have more suicides? At first glance, it seems as though the answer must be "yes". Although not all suicides are related to mental illness, unsurprisingly people with mental illness do have a much higher suicide rate than people without. So, all other things being equal, the rate of mental illness in a country should correlate with the suicide rate. Of course, all other things are not equal, and other factors might come into play such as the quality of mental health services. But it still seems as though there should be a correlation, albeit not a perfect one, between mental illness and suicide.I decided to see whether or not there is such a correlation. The World Health Organization (WHO) provides the relevant data here. There have only ever been three studies attempting to measure rates of common mental illnesses internationally (1,2,3), and all three were run by the WHO. The WHO also collates national suicide rates (here) for most countries, although a few are missing. No-one seems to have published anything looking for a correlation between these two sets of numbers of before, or if they did, I've failed to find it.So what's the story? Take a look - In short, there's no correlation. The Pearson correlation (unweighted) r = 0.102, which is extremely low. As you can see, both mental illness and suicide rates vary greatly around the world, but there's no relationship. Japan has the second highest suicide rate, but one of the lowest rates of mental illnesses. The USA has the highest rate of mental illness, but a fairly low suicide rate. Brazil has the second highest level of mental illness but the second lowest occurrence of suicide.*Some technical notes: Two of the three surveys, the ICPE (2000) and the WMHS (2004), sampled the whole population of each country. The other one, which was also the earliest, the PPGHC (1993), surveyed people attending family doctors. Because this is a slightly different approach, I'll focus on the ICPE and the WMHS, although the results are very similar (see below).The ICPE sampled 7 countries and the WMHS sampled 14, but 4 countries were included in both surveys, so there's a total of 17 countries. I've used the mean of the ICPE and the WMHS for those 4 countries where we have data from both, for the rest I've used whichever is available. For the suicide rates, the WHO gives data for various different years, so I've used 2002, or the nearest available year, since this is between 2000 and 2004. For two countries, Lebanon and Nigeria, the WHO do not report suicide rates. For China, rates of mental illness are given in both Beijing and Shanghai.The studies used structured diagnostic interviews to try to measure the percentage of people suffering from mental illness in the 12 months before the interview. As I've said previously, this -attempts to study a random sample of the population of a certain country. In order to establish whether each person is mentally ill or not, they use structured diagnostic interviews. These consists in asking the subject a fixed ("structured") series of questions, and declaring them to have a certain mental disorder if they answer "Yes" to a given number of them.In this case the structured question interview was called the CIDI and it used DSM-IV criteria. You can check it out here. Example question:You mentioned having periods that lasted several days or longer when you felt sad, empty, or depressed most of the day. During episodes of this sort, did you ever feel discouraged about how things were going in your life? (YES, NO, DON’T KNOW, REFUSED)*The rates from the population surveys (ICPE & WMHS) don't correlate with suicide but they do correlate with the rates from the PPGHC survey of people attending family doctors. The association here is very strong, with a correlation r = 0.693. The only outlier is the US. This is despite the fact that a decade elapsed between the first survey (1993) and the other two (2000, 2004).This is important because it shows that the mental illness surveys are measuring something about these countries, something which is stable over time. They're not just producing random junk results. But whatever they're measuring, it's not related to suicide.*What does this mean? You leave a comment and tell me. But here's my take. I've often expressed skepticism of population surveys and their (very high) estimates of mental illness, but even so, I was surprised to find no correlation at all with suicide. I'd say that any meaningful measure of mental illness should correlate with suicide. These surveys, using the CIDI, don't, so to me they're not meaningful.One thing to bear in mind about these numbers is that they deal with "common" mental illnesses like depression, substance abuse and anxiety. They leave out the most severe disorders such as schizophrenia. Also, people in psychiatric hospitals, in prison, and the homeless, will not have been included in the studies because they sample "households". That could be why there's no association with suicide, but if so then these surveys are missing a very important aspect of mental health.The surveys do seem to measure something, but I don't think it has much to do with mental illness. This is just a guess but I suspect they're measuring willingness to talk about your emotional life to strangers. At least stereotypically, the Chinese and the Japanese are known as more reserved in this regard than Brazilians and Americans. So it's no surprise that when you ask people a load of personal questions, the "rates of mental illness" seem to be lower in Japan than in America. This doesn't mean Americans are really more ill, just more open.I've been talking about surveys looking at differences between countries, but if these are flawed, then so are surveys looking at just one... Read more »
Sartorius N, Ustün TB, Costa e Silva JA, Goldberg D, Lecrubier Y, Ormel J, Von Korff M, & Wittchen HU. (1993) An international study of psychological problems in primary care. Preliminary report from the World Health Organization Collaborative Project on 'Psychological Problems in General Health Care'. Archives of general psychiatry, 50(10), 819-24. PMID: 8215805
WHO. (2000) Cross-national comparisons of the prevalences and correlates of mental disorders. WHO International Consortium in Psychiatric Epidemiology. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 78(4), 413-26. PMID: 10885160
Demyttenaere K, & et Al. (2004) Prevalence, severity, and unmet need for treatment of mental disorders in the World Health Organization World Mental Health Surveys. JAMA, 291(21), 2581-90. PMID: 15173149
An intriguing and tragic story of brain damage is reported in the latest issue of Neurocase: Klüver-Bucy syndrome, hypersexuality, and the law.The authors are Devinsky, Sacks, and Devinsky - Sacks being neurologist and author Dr. Oliver Sacks. Their anonymous patient, a 51 year old married American man, is currently serving a jail sentence for downloading child pornography. But he's not your average pedophile.The man's problems began at the age of 19 when he -first suffered attacks of déjà vu ... They became much more frequent – as many as 20 attacks a day – and much more complex, the déjà vu now being followed by a cascade of other symptoms: sharp pains in the chest and sensations of breathlessness; alterations of hearing; occasional musical hallucinations – he would always hear a particular song ‘as clearly as if it were being played in the next room’...Tests showed that he was suffering from epilepsy, and that the seizures originated in the right mesial temporal lobe, an area of the brain involved in memory and emotion. Temporal lobe epilepsy is relatively common, and it's a fascinating topic in itself, as the symptoms often include hallucinations and other strange experiences such as a powerful sense of déjà vu.Anticonvulsant drugs didn't help, so at age 33, the patient had surgery to remove the region where the seizures began. However, a few months later, the seizures returned, worse than before. So, at age 39, he had a second operation to remove even more of his right temporal lobe. That's when his real trouble started -Approximately a month after surgery, behavioral changes of irritability, hyperphagia [increased eating] and hypersexuality (including coprophilia) developed. He became more sexually active with his wife and masturbated more often. Compulsively, he began to watch adult pornographic images and videos on the internet when his wife slept.The unfortunate patient's symptoms are a rare example of Klüver-Bucy Syndrome (KBS) in man. Here's the very first account of it -He no longer clearly understands the meaning of the sounds, sights, and other impressions that reach him. His food is devoured greedily, the head being dipped into the dish, instead of the food being conveyed to the mouth by the hands. He reacts to all kinds of noises, even slight ones – such as the rustling of a piece of paper – but shows no consequent evidence of alarm or agitation and displays tyrannizing proclivities towards his mate.That's a description of a lab monkey, written in 1888 by British neuroscientists Sanger Brown and E. A. Schaefer. Compare it to the patient's own words about what happened to him -My appetite for food and sex increased dramatically. I had greater mood swings. I wanted sex constantly. Every day. I was very easily stimulated and began to touch myself regularly. I began to request sex daily from my wife. If I wasn’t having sex with my wife, I masturbated. This behavior increased over time. I became more emotionally labile, obsessive–compulsive... I become distracted so easily that I can’t get anything started or done.It's a classic example of KBS, although the patient only had his right temporal lobe damaged, whereas in monkeys KBS usually follows removal of both the left and the right temporal lobes. Also, it's interesting that the symptoms only started a month after the surgery.The patient's appetite for sex (and food) was insatiable, and this became his downfall -Some websites solicited him to view and purchase child pornography. He became obsessed with this and eventually purchased and downloaded pornographic images of prepubescent females engaged in sexual activities from the internet. He was ashamed and secretive about these activities, not discussing the pornography or masturbation with his wife or with anyone else.In 2006, he was arrested. A psychiatrist prescribed an antipsychotic, quetiapine, and an antidepressant, sertraline. His sexual obsessions disappeared, and according to his wife, "he became much warmer and loving but the medications shut off his libido... sex became non-existent."The patient was subsequently charged with 'knowingly and wilfully possessing material which contained at least three images of child pornography'. He plead guilty. Dr Devinsky told the court that the right temporal lobe damage was the "major contributing factor to the patient’s hypersexuality and viewing of child pornography" and that he was, therefore, not responsible for his actions. Oliver Sacks agreed, saying a letter that he was. . . a man of superior intelligence and of real moral delicacy and sensibility, who at one point was driven to act out of character under the spur of an irresistible physiological compulsion resulting from his brain injury. A recurrence of such behavior is extremely unlikely given his character and insight... He is strictly monogamous.The prosecution, however, argued that he was in control of actions, because he was able to avoid acting inappropriately in public, and they sought the maximum sentence possible - 20 years. They said thatthe patient’s hypersexual behavior in some situations but not others was evidence for volitionally controlled criminal behavior; that it was incompatible with a neurological cause. For example, he downloaded and viewed child pornography at home but not at work.The judge, however, accepted that the patient's medical condition was a mitigating factor in the case. He sentenced him to 26 months imprisonment, 25 months home confinement, and 5 years under supervision - the minimum punishment allowable by law.Should he have been punished at all? Devinsky, Sacks, and Devinsky don't think so: "Was he criminally responsible? Did his behavioral actions warrant imprisonment? We believe the answer is no to both questions."But the case raises difficult questions about free will and responsibility. At first glance, it seems as though the man's brain damage didn't directly make him download the child porn, but merely gave him an "urge" to do so. Don't we have the ability to choose whether or not to follow our urges? Isn't that what "free will" is?On the other hand, damage to the same parts of the brain causes strikingly similar symptoms in monkeys. An alien scientist observing life on earth might well conclude, from cases like this, that all the species of monkeys on this planet are very similar - including humans. You damage a certain part of their brains, and their behaviour changes in a predictable way. Most of us humans would say that other monkeys don't have "free will" - but then how are we so sure that we do?Links: I've previously blogged about drugs to increase libido and the question of free will. The Neurocritic has a great post on neurology and sex from a few weeks back. Finally, perhaps the most important question raised by this case is what would the Paedofinder General say?... Read more »
Devinsky J, Sacks O, & Devinsky O. (2009) Kluver-Bucy syndrome, hypersexuality, and the law. Neurocase : case studies in neuropsychology, neuropsychiatry, and behavioural neurology, 1-6. PMID: 19927260
Kuru is an acquired prion disease, transmitted through ritualistic cannibalism, that reached epidemic proportions in the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea. In a previous post, I presented an article by John Collinge’s group on the selection process of heterozygosity at codon 129 of the prion protein gene (PRNP). The research group has gone a step further by recently describing a new polymorphism of the PRNP gene, G129V. The authors performed PRNP genotyping of 3,000 individuals from the Eastern Highland population, which included 709 individuals who had participated in cannabalistic rituals. They looked specifically at the codons 127 and 129 among geographic regions and among individuals that were stratified by risk exposure (i.e., high, medium, and low risk). The G127V variant was only found in those regions where kuru was prevalent. 127V was present in half of the women who had the highest exposure to kuru and who were homozygous for methionine at codon 129 (MM). Interesting, although 129V was present in kuru exposed populations, it was not found in those who succumbed to kuru or in unexposed population groups around the world. 127V was also invariably linked to a 129M allele and predominately found in 129MM homozygotes in contrast to 129MV heterozygotes. Heterozygosity at codon 127 thus conveyed resistance to kuru in others susceptible 129MM homozygotes. Thus the newly described G127V polymorphism was naturally selected among populations exposed to kuru as a resistance factor. Both codon 129V and codon 127V are examples of natural selection that have occurred recently. Once again, prion diseases teach us a lot about biology in general…hence another important factor for studying them. Mead S, Whitfield J, Poulter M, Shah P, Uphill J, Campbell T, Al-Dujaily H, Hummerich H, Beck J, Mein CA, Verzilli C, Whittaker J, Alpers MP, & Collinge J (2009). A Novel Protective Prion Protein Variant that Colocalizes with Kuru Exposure. The New England journal of medicine, 361 (21), 2056-2065 PMID: 19923577 del.icio.us Tags: kuru,evolution,epidemiology,prion diseases,research,biology,genetics,risk ... Read more »
Mead S, Whitfield J, Poulter M, Shah P, Uphill J, Campbell T, Al-Dujaily H, Hummerich H, Beck J, Mein CA.... (2009) A Novel Protective Prion Protein Variant that Colocalizes with Kuru Exposure. The New England journal of medicine, 361(21), 2056-2065. PMID: 19923577
In the previous post I made a distinction between “affiliation” and “identity” that may not have been totally clear. In the context of Keith Kloor’s article on Navajo connections to Chaco, the basic point I want to make could be drastically oversimplified to something like this:
The Park Service’s finding that the Navajos are “affiliated” with [...]... Read more »
I’m not planning to blog a lot on the Astronomical Orientation of Ancient Greek Temples as is openly accessible. Your comments are going to carry a lot more weight there than here. But I’ll try and keep track of what other people are saying elsewhere. I’m expecting this to be the first paper of a [...]... Read more »
Salt, A. (2009) The Astronomical Orientation of Ancient Greek Temples. PLoS ONE, 4(11). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007903
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