Archive for April, 2007

Apr 30 2007

Researchers Create a Virtual Mouse Brain

Published by under Skepticism

Neuroscience and computer technology both deal with the underlying science of information storage and processing. The brain, after all, is a complex, massively parallel, biological computer. At the cutting edge, these two disciplines are benefiting from a robust cross fertilization: neuroscientists are using computers to model portions of the brain and better understand how it works; computer scientists are using neural network models to create computer programs that learn. The ultimate expression of this overlap is to produce a computer that models a biological brain. A team of researchers from the IBM Almaden Research Lab and the University of Nevada have made significant progress toward this goal.

The team has used IBM’s BlueGene supercomputer to simulate a mammalian brain with about half the computational power of a mouse brain (8,000 neurons each with about 6,300 synapses, or connections), and operating at about 1/10 the speed. They claim that when they ran their virtual mouse brain they saw virtual neurons form spontaneously into groups and nerves firing with staggered coordinated patterns typical of a biological brain.

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Apr 27 2007

Mental Illness Denial – Part V

I have dedicated this week to discussing the complex topic of mental illness, specifically responding to those, like Dr. Fred Baughman, who deny that it is legitimate. In my final installment I will deal specifically with the issue of drug therapy, covering some general principles, as it applies to mental illness in general, and to ADHD in particular.

Rational pharmacotherapy is a critical and effective part of modern medicine. The bottom line is that drugs save lives, extend our lives, and improve our quality of life. Like any technology, they are a tool. Because they are a potent tool, however, they also have the ability to harm.

This duality is reflected in public opinion, that both desires the benefits of modern pharmacology, but also harbors a deep fear and mistrust of drugs and chemicals – words that are often used as pejoratives. This distrust extends to the pharmaceutical industry, which is also the target of much conspiracy and anti-corporate ideology. I am not going to discuss the vices and virtues of big pharma today – that’s for another time – but rather try to close the gap between how physicians think of and use drugs and the public perception of them.

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4 responses so far

Apr 26 2007

Mental Illness Denial – Part IV

In my previous posts on this topic I have argued that mental illnesses are as real and scientific as any medical entities, they often have a biological basis in brain function and we now have the tools to see aspects of this dysfunction, there is no clean distinction between mental and other medical symptoms as even classical pathology can cause psychiatric symptoms, the clinical basis of their diagnosis is legitimate medicine, and objections to the very existence of mental illness are not valid. But even many who accept all this still may have a problem with the current practice of mental health, especially the tendency to overdiagnose and prescribe drugs to treat mental symptoms. Today I will address these concerns.

First it is important to recognize that these questions are distinct from the underlying question of whether or not mental illness diagnoses are legitimate and represent real biological entities. Dr. Baughman and other mental illness deniers often make, in my opinion, the argument from final consequences logical fallacy – the implementation of mental health is flawed, therefore the underlying theories must also be flawed.

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Apr 25 2007

Mental Illness Denial – Part III

I have been writing this week about mental illness denial, as a follow up to my debate with neurologist Fred Baughman on The Debate Hour. In my previous entries I pointed out that mental phenomena are manifestations of biological brain function, that sometimes classical diseases (like tumors and infection) of the brain can cause psychiatric symptoms, and further that brain function also depends upon more subtle biology – specifically the pattern of neuronal connections and the robustness of neurotransmitter activity, and that problems there can also result in mental disorders. Today I will discuss in more detail the evidence for a biological correlate to mental illness.

Dr. Baughman insisted numerous times during the debate that there is no evidence for a biological cause of any mental illness. This statement is demonstrably false – so let me demonstrate.

Of course, as mentioned above, there are numerous cases where classical pathology, the kind that Dr. Baughman admits into his privileged list of acceptable biological causes of disease, cause mental symptoms – such as depression, apathy, sedation, mania, and psychosis. Here there is no controversy – treat the underlying identifiable cause (if possible) and the mental symptoms should resolve, or at least improve or stabilize.

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Apr 24 2007

Mental Illness Denial Part II

Yesterday I wrote about my debate with Dr. Fred Baughman, who denies the existence of mental illness and the scientific legitimacy of the field of psychiatry. I laid out the basic foundation of modern neuroscience and how this leads to the conclusion that there must be mental illness, for the brain causes the mind and the brain is a biological organ like any other. Today I will discuss some of the specific arguing tactics that Baughman and others use to avoid this seemingly unavoidable conclusion.

All behavior is normal

Dr. Baughman’s points are more semantic arguments and misdirection than valid logic. He argues, for example, that the entire range of human behavior should be considered normal. All traits vary, he argues, and it is not valid to simply label the extreme ends of this variation as abnormal. To reiterate what I wrote yesterday, he returns to his position that only classic pathology can be considered a disease, he excludes all other criteria a-priori, and only disease can be considered a medical condition.

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Apr 23 2007

Mental Illness Denial – Part I

On Friday I appeared on The Debate Hour hosted by the Infidel Guy, the topic of discussion being “Is psychiatry a legitimate science?” I was defending psychiatry as legitimate while Dr. Fred Baughman, also a neurologist, defended his long time position that psychiatry is (to quote his website) “100% fraud.” I thought I would use my next few entries to delve into some of the issues raised more deeply.

Now, there is much to criticize about the mental health professions. It is a very diverse collection of beliefs and methods, and it is not possible to paint this diversity with a single brush. It ranges from rigorous science to pure pseudoscience. It is also an extremely challenging field, dealing with the complexity of human thought and behavior and confronting difficult ethical issues such as autonomy and legal responsibility.

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Apr 20 2007


hanks for all the interesting responses to my blog yesterday. I think the response is an indication of how fascinating the topic of human consciousness is – and of course it is well documented that humans have an endless fascination with themselves. I want to respond to one comment, submitted by James Fox, who wrote:

“Then again if it’s all “matter” then nothing really matters…. Right??? Notions and ideas such as what is meaningful, practical, moral or even responsible can be nothing but fascinating constructs and derivative observable results of chemical reactions.”

In fact I agree. There is no truly objective morality or meaning to life. We are “just” bags of chemicals carrying out complex reactions. To make it worse, our perspective is completely subjective as well. If you think your life has objective meaning, or that human civilization means anything, try to imagine pulling back a bit to the scale of the universe over billions of years. There is nothing so significant that it does not shrink to imperceptible nothingness from a grand enough perspective.

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Apr 19 2007

Blaming the Brain and the Boogeyman

Whenever extraordinary unfathomable human actions take place, like the tragic shootings that occurred this week at Virginia Tech, there is an immediate collective struggle to understand what happened. It creates almost a snapshot of the culture’s current paradigms of the nature of humanity and human behavior. Everyone intellectually grasps for what is at hand to explain events, while career moralizers blame the tragedy on their favorite boogeyman. I don’t pretend to have any profound answers myself, but would like to add my neurological musings and other observations to the conversation.

The Blame Game

When bad stuff happens, the knee-jerk primitive psychological reaction seems to be to blame your enemy – in modern society that usually means blaming an ideological enemy. Ken Ham over at answersingenesis was quick to, yet again, blame atheism for the shootings. He wrote: “We live in an era when public high schools and colleges have all but banned God from science classes.”

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Apr 17 2007

Letters from a 9/11 Conspiracy Theorist

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

Below is an e-mail exchange I had recently with someone who takes offense that we are not more skeptical of the official version of what happened on 9/11. Their letters to me are in italics, and mine follow. It is a fairly good representation of the typical thought processes employed by the conspiracy theorists.


I find your podcasts really interesting and it’s interesting to hear the “rational” minded folks too. However I was disappointed with your podcast #89 where you trash everything that is not right off what the mainstream-media is telling you.

While you bash these “celebrities” who speak out for 9/11 investigation, you don’t notice that obviously you didn’t research history really. It’s a proven fact that governments have used false-flag operations to get their thing through. Hitler did it with the reichstags-fire and blamed it on “communist-terrorists” and then used it as a pretext to implement the enabling-act (which is basically the patriot-act that Bush-Nazi then created with the 9/11 event) and invaded Poland (where Bush then tried to associate 9/11 with Saddam Hussein and Iraq, WMD’s).

See parallels?

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Apr 16 2007

The Evolutionary Rubes Strike Back

Published by under Creationism/ID

I’m loving it. We have a nice little war raging in the science blogosphere between those of us defending science and reason (in this particular case evolutionary theory) and apologists for intelligent design (specifically the Discovery Institute’s latest mouthpiece, neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Egnor). Recently I discussed the fact that training in neurosurgery does not necessarily prepare one to have a respectable opinion about evolution. I also took some jabs at ID proponents’ abuse of information theory. Well Dr. Egnor has fired back with an article about me on the Discovery Institute’s website.

First, I can’t help but be tickled that I am denigrated as a “Yale Darwinist” on the DI website. Let me quote the eminent politician and statesman James Danforth Quayle by saying, “I wear their scorn as a badge of honor.” So, thanks.
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