Archive for the 'Neuroscience' Category

Sep 29 2015

Study Correlates Brain Connections to Intelligence

Published by under Neuroscience

One marker of a good scientific study is that it provokes more questions than it answers. That thought kept occurring to me as I read a recent study: A positive-negative mode of population covariation links brain connectivity, demographics and behavior. The study essentially correlates specific patterns of brain connectivity – the degree to which different parts of the human brain talk to each other – with a suite of what are generally considered positive traits, such as education, income, and self-control.

Let me describe the study and then we’ll try to unpack the many layers of what such a study might mean.

The authors are among the first to avail themselves of the Human Connectome Project (HCP), part of the NIH funded BRAIN project. The HCP seeks to perform high definition function MRI scanning on 1,200 individuals while also gather large amounts of data about those same individuals, such as IQ testing, personality profile, and a host of demographic and historical information. The HCP has already released its data for the first 500 subjects to be scanned, so that other scientists can use the data for their own research.

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9 responses so far

Sep 03 2015

Thinking Style and Paranormal Belief

One burning question that comes up in skeptical circles is whether or not people who believe in the paranormal, are highly religious, or are enamored of conspiracy theories think differently than skeptics. Obviously they have different beliefs, but the question is whether or not their brains function differently in some respects from people who are more rational and scientific.

It certainly seems as if this is the case, but being skeptics we understand the irony of relying on intuition to conclude that other people rely more on intuition. Fortunately we have some psychological research to shed light on this question, including a recent study I will discuss below.

First let me dispense with the obvious false dichotomy – we should not think of this question as if there are two distinct types of people. Psychological studies will often do this, but they are simply dividing a continuum down the middle, or are only considering people at either end of the spectrum.

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155 responses so far

Aug 04 2015

Convincing Antivaxxers

A new study has been published in PNAS exploring methods for changing the attitudes of those who are anti-vaccine. The results differ from a previous study published last year in Pediatrics. Let’s explore their methods and results.

Both studies questioned subjects about their attitudes toward vaccines and their willingness to vaccinate their children. The Pediatrics study was web-based and recruited 1759 parents. They divided them into four groups:

(1) information explaining the lack of evidence that MMR causes autism from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; (2) textual information about the dangers of the diseases prevented by MMR from the Vaccine Information Statement; (3) images of children who have diseases prevented by the MMR vaccine; (4) a dramatic narrative about an infant who almost died of measles from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet; or to a control group.

The PNAS study was in person, but only recruited 315 subjects. They divided people into three groups: 1) given information debunking vaccine myths, 2) told about the risks of measles and shown graphic images, 3) control group given information unrelated to vaccines.

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19 responses so far

Jul 21 2015

Expertise and the Illusion of Knowledge

Published by under Neuroscience

In general people think they know more than they do. This is arguably worse than mere ignorance – having the illusion of knowledge. Psychologist David Dunning (of the Dunning-Kruger effect) recently wrote in an editorial about his own study (which I discuss here):

“What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

Dunning was discussing the “ignorant mind.” Further, self-perceived expertise does not protect against this effect and in fact may make it worse. A new paper published in the latest issue of Psychological Science, When Knowledge Knows No Bounds: Self-Perceived Expertise Predicts Claims of Impossible Knowledge, presents four studies exploring the relationship between perceived expertise and the illusion of knowledge.

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29 responses so far

Jun 22 2015

Inside Out – A Neuroscience Metaphor

Published by under Neuroscience

I recently saw the new Pixar movie, Inside Out, which follows the inner workings of a young girl’s mind. (I will be discussing the premise, rather than the plot, of the movie so only mild spoilers.) As a neuroscientist of course I was interested in the metaphors that the writers chose to represent the workings of the human brain. They made many good choices, but there was also some interesting elements missing or misplaced.

Of course, I understand this is a movie. The writers made choices to make the movie enjoyable to children as well as adults, which means they likely made some choices to keep things simple. Other choices may have been driven by the needs of the plot, and still others simply to be cute and entertaining. I get it – this wasn’t a neurology lesson. For example, IMDb notes:

“The writers considered up to 27 different emotions, but settled on five (Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger) to make it less complicated. Some of the major emotions that ended up being cut included Surprise, Pride, and Trust.”

Central Command

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8 responses so far

Jun 09 2015

Injectible Brain Electrodes

Charles Lieber with his team at Harvard University have developed a flexible mesh network of electrodes that can be injected through the skull, unfolding onto the surface of the brain. This technology could be a significant advance in our ability to study the brain.

Neuroscientists are trying to map the brain in as much detail as possible, creating what is being called the “connectome” (reminiscent of mapping the human “genome”).

There are about 87 billion neurons in the adult human brain. Each neuron is capable of making up to around 10,000 connections to other neurons, which means the total connections in the brain is somewhere around a quadrillion. The saying goes that neurons that wire together fire together, so the pattern of connections determines the pattern of electrical activity in the brain.

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7 responses so far

May 28 2015

How the Brain Chooses Where to Go

Published by under Neuroscience

Neuroscientists are making progress mapping out the cortical pathways that allow us to know where we are and navigate to a desired location. A recent study adds another bit of information to this growing picture.

The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for 2014 was given to several scientists, Dr. John M. O’Keefe, Dr. May-Britt Moser and Dr. Edvard I. Moser, for their collective research in working out the basic neurological function that underlies our ability to place ourselves in our environment and to navigate around. O’Keefe identified place cells. A specific place cell will fire when we are in a specific location. Different patterns of place cells firing represent different locations.

These place cells are found in the hippocampus, specifically area CA1. O’Keefe also found that the place cells have memory function, and are therefore critical to our ability to remember specific locations.

Moser and Moser extended this work by finding grid cells in the entorhinal cortex. This area connects heavily with CA1, and contains cells that behave like the place cells. However, the grid cells are arranged in a hexagonal grid, and they fire in sequence as rats move through their environments. The grid cells therefore seem to be a literal map of the environment, and track our movement through the environment, while the place cells tell us where we are.

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84 responses so far

May 18 2015

Ex Machina and AI

Published by under Neuroscience

I saw Ex Machina this weekend. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, mild spoiler alert – I will try to avoid any major reveals, but I will be discussing major aspects of the movie.

First, it’s an excellent film. I highly recommend it. It was both entertaining and thought provoking. Writer/Director Alex Garland clearly understands the topic of artificial intelligence (AI), and is also a talented filmmaker. I was particularly impressed by how much he accomplished with such a sparse film. The majority of the film takes place in one location and with three characters, but he quickly established those characters and the primary tensions that drive the film.

He also manages to weave in a fairly deep commentary on the nature of consciousness and creativity, the nature of AI, and all with a subtext of oppression, misogyny and male-female relationships. I still feel like I am missing a lot of subtext in this film, which will require at least a second viewing and a lot more thought.

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16 responses so far

Apr 02 2015

Lunar Cycle Effects Busted

When I was an intern doing a rotation in the emergency department, on one particularly busy shift a nurse commented (to no one in particular) that it must be a full moon. I habitually look at the moon and generally know what phase it is in (right now it is a waxing gibbous, almost full), and so I knew at the time that in fact there was a crescent moon in the sky. I informed her of this. She gave a disappointed look and then went on with her work without any apparent further thought on the matter.

The episode struck me at the time. It seemed to me that I just witnessed a clear example of confirmation bias – what if it had been near a full moon? That would have confirmed her prior belief in a lunar effect, while this negative correlation was brushed aside and likely did not have any negative effect on her belief. (Although, my interpretation and memory of this event can itself be an example of confirmation bias regarding confirmation bias.)

Belief in the so-called lunar effect, that the phases of the moon exert an influence on human behavior with the most common element being a full-moon inducing extreme behavior, is very common. In my experience it is one of the most common pseudoscientific beliefs I encounter in the general public. One survey indicates that 43% of adults believe in the lunar effect, especially mental health professionals, including nurses.

When someone expresses such a belief to me I often use it as an opening to discuss skeptical principles. While belief in the lunar effect is widespread, it is usually not part of any emotionally held religious or ideological belief. It is therefore an excellent teaching opportunity. One question I like to ask is, “how do you think that works?” The most common answer I receive is probably the least plausible – that the tidal effects of the moon influence the brain because the brain is sitting in water (spinal fluid).

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25 responses so far

Mar 26 2015

Fox News, the NFL, and Concussion Denial

Published by under Neuroscience

I have been a fan of professional football since my college days (go Pats) but I also recognize that it is a brutal sport prone to injuries. In recent years awareness of the true neurological risk of concussions, especially repeated concussions, has been increasingly coming to light. This may cause some cognitive dissonance among fans, players, and anyone involved with the NFL, including broadcasters.

Recently Fox News published and article in which Dylan Gwinn writes:

Don’t look now, but concussions have become the new global warming: a debate where “consensus” trumps evidence, and heroes and villains are determined by their stances on an issue where the science is bogus at worst and murky at best.

This is classic FUD – fear, uncertainty, and doubt, the primary tactic of those who find reality not to their liking in some particular aspect.

Gwinn creates the classic false dichotomy between consensus and evidence. What if the consensus is based upon scientific evidence, and in fact the consensus of experts is the best way for non-experts to understand what the evidence actually says.

Further, all science is murky, at least to some degree. The clarity of a scientific conclusion exists along a spectrum from genuinely controversial to rock solid, but scientific evidence is always complex, subject to multiple interpretations, and incomplete. It doesn’t take much creativity to portray any scientific conclusion (even those at the rock solid end of the spectrum) as murky. Creationists are evidence of that.

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27 responses so far

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