Monkey Uses Brain to Move Robotic Arm

I haven't read much about this, but it gives hope towards the idea of making life easier for paraplegics or other amputees. I'm very curious to know where the electrodes are placed in his (or her) brain and how they trained him to use the arm. Like any physical skill, I assume it just requires practice, and then becomes second nature.

Yet another example the Singularity is Near...

I'm no PETA member, but I always feel bad for the monkeys in experiments like these, poor little guy just wants his marshmellow.


Brain Scans Sound Like Phrenology

Psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Carlat has a great article in Wired about the overhype of brain scans. Referring to the terabytes of brain scan data we've accumulated since the advent of the EEG, he asks: "Are we really seeing the mind in action, or are we allowing ourselves to be seduced by images that may actually tell us very little?"

The over-extrapolated brain scan is being utilized in many different arenas outside of medicine now - marketing, law, and politics to name a few.

In the article, Dr. Carlat recounts his experience receiving a brain evaluation at the Amen Clinic - which touts a "prescription for a better brain." Dr. Amen does a Spect (a specific kind of brain scan) on Dr. Carlat and takes a personal and family history of depression.

An excerpt of his "analysis":

...Scrutinizing the scans some more, he (Dr. Amen) says, "You need to be busy to be happy. Your brain is cool at rest. You need stuff in your life to feel alive, together, and connected." He looks at another view, this one showing only the most active regions of my brain. "In this scan, you have increased activity in your thalamus, your two basal ganglia, and your cingulate cortex." He picks up a pen and draws a line connecting these four regions to the right lateral temporal lobe. "I call this the diamond plus.' It's a pattern of angst, and we see it in people who have had significant trauma in their lives."
Dr. Carlat goes on to make the apt comparison of these results to a palm reading:
...I find myself comparing my assessment meeting with Amen to experiences I've had with shrewd palm readers. Like them, Amen made vague pronouncements that could apply to anyone: "You're happier when you're busy." When he made specific statements about my moods and life events, they seemed to be based on information he obtained the old-fashioned way — by asking questions. He already knew about my family history of depression and my mother's suicide when he mentioned a "predisposition to depression" and "significant trauma." Occasionally, he was completely off the mark, like when he saw neural signs of temper problems. In fact, when my wife and I argue, my calmness is exasperating, leading her to ask, "Do you even have a pulse?"
Dr. Carlat discusses the Amen Clinic with a vocal skeptic (Robert Rubin) who easily describes why this is such shotty science:
Rubin, a noted researcher on brain functioning in depression, draws two circles on a sheet of paper. He points to the first and says, "Let's say this represents a bunch of people with low activity of the frontal lobe, and let's say, for the sake of argument, that many of them also have depression." Then he points to the second circle. "And here are all the people without depression. Do any of these people also have low frontal lobe activity? You bet they do. So there are people with depression who have this finding, and people without depression with this finding. How is the finding helpful?"
When I studied neuroscience in college, I was always weary of extrapolating results from neuroimaging studies. And I still think neuroscience is going down a fruitless path in this direction. This idea that we can identify our inclinations, temperament, and moods, or diagnose our depression via fMRI's, EEGs, and Spect is pervasive, but completely unproven. I don't quite agree with Dr. Carlat's idea that while we haven't accomplished this mental transparency yet, we will eventually. I don't see this ever happening, here's why.

This logic is like running a scan on the intel chip in your Macbook to diagnose why a song won't play on iTunes. Or vice versa, to run a scan on your mother board and determine that you're probably having trouble running macros in Excel. The language of the software is completely different than the language of the hardware. And while you need the hardware to run the software, tweaking the hardware isn't going to fix specific software problems.

This metaphor applies to the distinction between our brain and consciousness - they speak different languages. You can't diagnose a problem in consciousness by analyzing the biology of the brain - it's a waste of time. Depression is not a disease of the brain, like some kidney disease that can be treated with medication. The brain creates a whole bigger than the sum of its parts - consciousness. But that doesn't mean that tweaking its wires can fix something specific in consciousness. This only works in extreme cases like giving L-Dopa to Parkinson's patients (in Awakenings).

The only way to determine a cause for depression is to see the story of an individual's life experience, and analyze what's problematic (no small task from what I've heard). This analysis must be on par with that life experience, which is on the software level (mind/consciousness); not the hardware level (brain). No one speaks the language of snyapsese.

This is why I find it so important to differentiate between neurological and psychological disorders - a brain scan is vital for finding a stroke, brain tumors, or early signs of Alzheimer's Disease, but I highly doubt we'll ever be able to use one to see the actual content of our consciousness. This kind of transparency is a lost cause.

A good pop culture example of this logical shortcoming is the major plot hole in Minority Report - how exactly are computers translating the brain activity of the pre-cogs into visual images displayed on monitors? No brain scan in the world will solve the phenomenological problem. Guess that's why it's called science fiction...

UPDATE: Dr. Carlat posted some more thoughts on the response to his Wired article. The more I read about Amen, the more of a charlatan he appears to be...


Hey, Douchebag, try posting more...

God, I'm mean to myself. Still, more will be coming, life got a bit upended recently. But I saw Alex linking to the Times Machine on his blog, and had to link to it here. Of course, my nerdy mind thought it would have something to do with time travel, but this is still awesome.

I have a backlog of stuff I want to post, so a powerful ejaculation of information and odd opinion is on its way...


Mary Had A Little Luuuuuuurrrrrggggghhhh....amb, Little Lurrrrrrgggghhhh....

Transcranial magnetic stimulation frightens me. It's supposedly pretty harmless, as you can see below in the video. They're targeting the language center of this man's brain. It stops him cold as he recites Humpty Dumpty, but amazingly enough, it doesn't interrupt him when he sings it. The TMS is targeted on his left frontal lobe where the center for language production is located, but music is in the right hemisphere, so it is not effected.

As a migraine sufferer this is intriguing, because they are using this method to treat the syndrome (as well as stroke and Parkinson's). I just don't think I'm quite ready for having my brain stimulated by anything where I'm not at least pushing the button. Then again, I don't have very severe ones - if that was the case (I'm looking at you, Dad), I would give it a shot.

TMS is also used to treat Dystonia

The film (above) on Dystonia (Twisted) is very good, and an amazing example of what a machine the brain and body is. Like consciousness, we take it for granted when it's functional - we don't appreciate its unbelievable functionality until it becomes damaged.

Tired Of Your Own Identity?

I feel this way all the time, and thought it was well expressed in Before Sunrise (a movie I had never actually seen until very recently).

From Ethan Hawke's character in Before Sunrise:

"It's usually myself that i wish i could get away from
I have never been anywhere that I haven't been
I've never had a kiss that i wasn't one of the kissers
I've never gone to the movies when I wasn't there in the audience
I've never been bowling when I wasn't there making some stupid joke
I think that's why so many people hate themselves, seriously
They're sick to death of being around themselves."
Funny to cross-reference this blog with my band, but I wrote a song about this sentiment called "Not My Own," which you can hear on my band, Monuments' Myspace page. Both express a yearning to be dissociated from one's self.

Charlie Kaufman Discovers My Wheelhouse, Exploits It Again

His directorial debut, Synecdoche looks amazing. His normal blend of subtle science fiction, neuroscience, philosophy, and all things meta are all in full force in this preview (volume is weird, you have to turn it up quite a bit). You can read about the synopsis under the preview.


Fiction Vs Reality?

The boundaries are getting blurred. From Neurocritic, a real live Telekinesis competition hosted by Noxious Sector.

"an ongoing collaborative endeavor by Canadian artists Ted Hiebert, Doug Jarvis and Jackson 2Bears, dedicated to the exploration of alternative cognitive function, the paranormal and the absurd."
Is this just silly performance art, or are these dudes actually trying to move things with their minds? In the misinformation internet age, I really can't tell what's real anymore. Gave me a good chuckle either way.


Predictably Irrational

A book I will be reading soon (thanks, Alex) by Dan Ariely. Neuroscience and psychology principles through the eyes of economics - interesting stuff.

He describes how placebos work in the video below. Another example of research on the effect expectations and top-down processing have on perception (in this case, pain and flavor). It's experiments like these that makes you realize how subjective and malleable ideas of pain and taste are.

Human experience is a messy operation - one science continues to analyze the same way we would balance a chemical equation. Most "data" in psychology and neuroscience is too confounded to be applicable.

(PS - not a huge surprise that he mentions how antidepressants don't fare much better than placebos.)


Colbert Science

"...when you investigate the world through the scientific method, you are basically dissecting the rainbow. what could be more beautiful of an experiment than to just look at something and say, "God did it." That's the most beautiful possible explanation because it involves salvation and the afterlife...why do we have to junk it up with thought?"
Ha, I love Colbert, but I've read he does believe in God, so I have to admit it's sometimes hard to tell where the joke begins and ends - maybe that's what makes him so good.


Interesting Post on Stalking

By Neurocritic.

A unique combination of the new song by Death Cab for Cutie, Huntington's Disease, OCD, basal ganglia pathology, and of course serotonin and dopamine pathways. Interesting stuff, but still leaves out the character/consciousness side of the equation. This is still only one half of the story. Not everything about ourselves can be reduced to brain disorders.

Happy Tattoo

You get back from the party, you're both feeling good, clothes are coming off, then you see this beauty.

From what I read, serotonin is her favorite neurotransmitter.

I'm more of a dopamine guy myself.


Seroquel, Another Apparently Fun Antidepressant

From a reader comment on Furious Season's Blog:

"I took 200 mgs. of Seroquel daily for two years after a questionable diagnosis for Bipolar II (manic symptoms appeared only after treatment with antidepressants or with high doses of IV steroids). Now, a year after withdrawing from Seroquel, I still wake up every two hours, and I still have episodes of akithisia. I believe this drug has permanently damaged my nervous system. I struggled with deep depression the entire time I was taking Seroquel; since withdrawing (a painful process) my mood has improved."
Another example of akathesia and SSRI's - not good.

Big Pharma Worse Than I Thought

And I already thought it was pretty bad. More from Furious Seasons about a great Slate article exposing another group of doctors and scientists that are on the take from Big Pharma companies like Glaxo Smith Kline, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, and Novartis.

What's most disturbing is that these guys structure the DSM, which determine diagnoses and recommended treatments for mental illnesses. And their influence is huge - WNYC's "Infinite Mind" recently aired a show called "Prozac Nation Revisited" with its host, Fred Goodwin. The goal of this show was for Dr. Goodwin and his guests to quell the "overblown" fear that there is a link between antidepressants and suicide. Here's the disturbing part:

"All four of the experts on the show, including Goodwin, have financial ties to the makers of antidepressants. Also unmentioned were the "unrestricted grants" that The Infinite Mind has received from drug makers, including Eli Lilly, the manufacturer of the antidepressant Prozac."
"The second guest on "Prozac Nation," Andrew F. Leuchter, is a professor of psychiatry at UCLA who has received research money from drug companies including Eli Lilly Inc., Pfizer, and Novartis. The third guest, Nada Stotland, president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association, has served on the speakers' bureaus of GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer. None of Leuchter and Stotland's ties to industry was revealed to listeners—instead, each was introduced as a prominent academic."
How can it be this bad? It's just getting harder and harder to trust scientific experts anymore. I know I must sound like a creationist here, but the science community has really been showing its holes lately. It is as susceptible to bias and corruption as politics. The danger of that is that science is supposed to be this impenetrable fortress of truth. And while it's the closest thing we have to that, it gets consumed by the public as unquestioned gospel. We seem to exist in an age of scientific zealotry - just quote a peer-reviewed study, and theory becomes fact.

It's a tricky gray area because it leaves established and monumentally important truths like evolution vulnerable to attack by indoctrinated religious thinkers. But when it comes to amorphous ideas like depression and consciousness, the "facts" are very malleable and susceptible to manipulation - especially when it's part of the mutli-billion dollar antidepressant industry.

It just doesn't seem like the standard, reductionist approach towards a true understanding of human consciousness and mental illness is going to suffice. For now, mental illness is just a ripe marketplace for corporate interest. Not to say there haven't been advances - there are some great therapists and psychiatrists out there (though few and far between it seems). Otherwise, we've just been grasping at straws (or ice picks). The solution to this problem is in dire need of a paradigm shift.

Major kudos to the writers of the Slate article,

(Interesting tidbit, I can't find Infinite Mind on WNYC)

Blindness Movie

I'm going to see the crap out of this movie - from the director of Constant Gardener about an epidemic of blindness and its effect on society. Seems to have similar themes to Children of Men - one of the best I've ever seen.

Some Uplifting Poetry

(via Mind Hacks)

by Roger McGough

I think about dying.
About disease, starvation,
violence, terrorism, war,
the end of the world.

It helps
keep my mind off things.

(me too)


The Singularity Is Coming

And sports will be the stage for its entrance. Great ESPN article on how prosthetics and physical enhancements will, and already are changing the face of sports.

South African sprinter, Oscar Pistorius was banned from the Olympics because tests found his prosthetic limbs (called Cheetah Flex-Foot legs) are too effective. They're actually more efficient than human legs, and since running on these prosthetics requires less oxygen than regular legs, it provides him with an unfair advantage. I guess I didn't see this coming in my lifetime - amputee athletes banned from sports because they're too good.

The debate about how to handle the evolving bionic abilities of athletes is pretty mind-blowing and will be hard to regulate going forward as advances in biological enhancements continue to explode. It seems for pro sports, they will likely need to create a standard for strength, speed, flexibility, etc and adjust the prosthetics accordingly ensuring a level playing field.

As I watch him run, it reminds me a bit of what it's like to swim with flippers on. You work equally hard, but you go twice as fast. Not sure where I come down on this one yet, hard not to root for this guy...


Charting The Uncanny

The Uncanny Valley is starting to take over my life slowly but surely. Ever since I heard of it a few days ago, things have been popping up, like this post from Mind Hacks. Vaughan collects the Youtube links for a video lecture by Karl MacDorman on how we interact with robots as their human likeness increases.

The clip from 30 Rock that got this ball rolling in my mind, which is based on the heady idea Tracy Jordan has to create a porn video game:

Illusion Times!

Hoping this guy's good on his promise to show a cool new illusion each week. This is the contrast/motion illusion, also known as "lucy in the sky" (note: you do not need acid to see the illusion).

The title of his blog is awesome:

"Illusion Sciences: why are we surprised by only some of the things that we see?"

So cool - always hard to remember that everything in our consciousness is being drawn up and processed by our brains at every second of every day. But there are mistakes everywhere, and the more we see the holes, the better we'll see reality.

Throwing Babies

Lilterally. It makes them grow up strong and healthy...or if they miss, a paraplegic. Seems worth it...