Saturday, June 23, 2012

Submit #RealWomenInNeuroscience to SfN Video Contest

Submission deadline extended to July 2 at 5 p.m. EST

By now, many of you have seen the European Commission's disastrous "Science: It's a Girl Thing!" video to promote an interest in science among 13-17 year old girls. It features lipstick, makeup, high heels, short skirts, and...

...a gawking male model at a microscope. The 53 second clip drew so many negative comments that the original was taken down (but fortunately a copy was uploaded for all to see).

Reaction across the internet was rather swift. A good place to start is “Science: It’s a Girl Thing”: Lab Barbie, Extra Lipstick by Maryn McKenna. Spoof videos were posted almost immediately, most notably this Unofficial Response. On Twitter, the hashtag was used to mark tweets about the fiasco, and started a movement to counter the sexist girlie stereotypes emphasizing the importance of nail polish over scientific knowledge and achievement.

The Society for Neuroscience sponsors an annual video contest to raise public awareness about brain research:
Convey a neuroscience concept on video

The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) challenges you to produce an original video demonstrating a concept about the brain that could be used as a teaching tool or resource. Whether it's an animation, song, or hands-on classroom activity, share the wonders of science through the Brain Awareness Video Contest.
So why not submit a video that incorporates real women in neuroscience? You could win up to $1,000 and a trip to SfN's annual meeting in New Orleans!!

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

This is my idea of fun Monkeys playing video games

Swinging in the back yard
Pull up in your fast car
Whistling my name

Open up a beer and
Say get over here
And play a video game

Video Games
------Lana Del Rey

It's you, it's you, it's all for you

Two Japanese researchers (Hosokawa & Watanabe, 2012) have trained three Japanese macaques to play competitive and noncompetitive video shooting games by manipulating a joystick to shoot bullets at a target. While the monkeys were playing video games, the researchers recorded the activity of neurons in the lateral prefrontal cortex:
We examined whether neurons in the lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC) showed response sensitivity related to a competitive game. In this study, monkeys played a video shooting game, either competing with another monkey or the computer, or playing alone without a rival. Monkeys performed more quickly and more accurately in the competitive than in the noncompetitive games, indicating that they were more motivated in the competitive than in the noncompetitive games. LPFC neurons showed differential activity between the competitive and noncompetitive games showing winning- and losing-related activity. Furthermore, activities of prefrontal neurons differed depending on whether the competition was between monkeys or between the monkey and the computer. These results indicate that LPFC neurons may play an important role in monitoring the outcome of competition and enabling animals to adapt their behavior to increase their chances of obtaining a reward in a socially interactive environment.

Everything I do
I tell you all the time
Heaven is a place on earth with you
Tell me all the things you want to do

Video Games
------Lana Del Rey


Hosokawa T, Watanabe M. (2012). Prefrontal Neurons Represent Winning and Losing during Competitive Video Shooting Games between Monkeys. J Neurosci. 32:7662-71.

I say you the bestest
Lean in for a big kiss
Put his favorite perfume on
Go play a video game

Video Games
------Lana Del Rey

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Textmania: a Modern Manifestation of Manic Hypergraphia?

Continuing with the theme of reading and writing, a new study reports on the case of a 23 yr old woman with bipolar I disorder whose output of text messages was "1333.33% more" during a manic episode (Emeagwali et al., 2012):
The patient reported a dramatic increase in the quantity of both texting and sex-texting (or sexting) in addition to a decrease in quality of the message content. In addition, there was a substantial increase in the number of people with whom the patient engaged in simultaneous texting conversations. This case provides evidence for the need to consider non-traditional forms of communication when evaluating a patient’s communication pattern during mania.
How many texts per day are we talking about? At least 200, up from her usual 15-20 texts/day.1 In the grand scheme of things, 200 is not all that unusual, because the mean number of text messages sent by young adults in the 18-24 age group is 109.5, according to a Pew Internet Survey.2 The change in the patient's behavior is the critical factor here.

Hypergraphia (an overpowering urge to write) is probably seen more frequently in mania than in temporal lobe epilepsy, but the latter gets more attention in the medical literature due to the sometimes spectacular nature of the output (e.g., the novels of Dostoevsky, a 17 million word diary, and a copious collection of rhyming poetry). The neurological case studies are often illustrated with EEG traces showing abnormal spiking activity, along with examples of the person's handwriting (Kalamangalam, 2009):
The patient was observed to write for much of her waking hours. The document, a letter to her husband, numbered 29 pages by the time of her discharge from hospital and remained unfinished. The writing was cramped, dense, and used all the available space on both sides of the sheet, including the margins. The contents of the letter were rambling, though with specific details. She wrote about her hospital stay, often mentioning exact times, her intake of medications, and minor details of conversations with staff.

-- click on image for a larger view --

Fig 1 (left). Sleep EEG, bipolar longitudinal montage: a single spike maximum over the right anterior temporal region (arrow). Fig. 3 (right). Close up of page 16. The patient writes about her medication dosing, including minor details. (modified from Kalamangalam, 2009).

You don't see such reports in the psychiatric literature.3 There are no obvious manifestations of a manic episode on EEG or PET scans where you can say, in an individual person, "oh yes, this reduced gamma coherence and inhibition of theta activity in the lateral inferior prefrontal cortex, coupled with increased dopaminergic transmission in the midbrain, are clear indicators of mania." A PubMed search for mania OR manic AND hypergraphia returns one result, while a search for temporal lobe epilepsy and hypergraphia yields 22 hits.

There have of course been books on bipolar disorder and creativity, such as Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison. More specifically, Dr. Alice W. Flaherty covered the phenomenology and neurobiology of hypergraphia. In The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain:
Flaherty writes compellingly of her bout with manic hypergraphia, when "the sight of a computer keyboard or a blank page gave me the same rush that drug addicts get from seeing their freebasing paraphernalia." Dissecting the role of emotion in writing and the ways in which brain-body and mood disorders can lead to prodigious — or meager — creative output, Flaherty uses examples from her own life and the lives of writers from Kafka to Anne Lamott, from Sylvia Plath to Stephen King [and Fyodor Dostoevsky].
And certainly the evidence for manic/hypomanic hypergraphia has been plainly obvious for as long as the internet has existed. There are thousands of bipolar bloggers and Tweeters and Facebook users and online journalers before that. Unlike PubMed, Google Blog Search returns 3,670 hits for bipolar hypergraphia and 4,230 hits for manic hypergraphia. And those are just the posts that use the term hypergraphia.4 One could envision a study on quantitative changes5 in written output on Twitter or blogs as a possible sign of bipolar cycling.

So it seems that contemporary psychiatrists are not all that interested in publishing case studies about their frantically writing patients, unlike the neurologists. Perhaps it's so commonplace that they just don't see the point?


1 As you can see, the mathematical calculation quoted in the first sentence is rather imprecise.

2 The median, which is less sensitive to the effects of gabby outliers, is 50 texts per day.

3 This raises the issue of Neurology vs Psychiatry and the Neurological/Psychiatric Divide.

4 For another interesting personal perspective see Bipolar 101 on HYPERGRAPHIA - the compulsion to write in bipolar disorder.

5 And of course qualitative changes in content and themes, when such writing hasn't been purged or accounts deleted at a later point in time...


Emeagwali, N., Bailey, R., & Azim, F. (2012). Textmania: Text Messaging During the Manic Phase of Bipolar I Disorder. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 23 (2), 519-522. DOI: 10.1353/hpu.2012.0062

Kalamangalam, G. (2009). Hypergraphia in temporal lobe epilepsy. Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology, 12 (3): 193–194. DOI: 10.4103/0972-2327.56323

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Monday, June 04, 2012

G r e a t e r / l e t t e r / s p a c i n g / helps reading in dyslexia

Simply increasing the spacing between letters improves the reading ability of children with developmental dyslexia, according to a group of Italian and French researchers (Zorzi et al., 2012). Dyslexic children were 20% faster and twice as accurate when reading the altered text. This impressive result was obtained without any prior training whatsoever.

The study was based on the phenomenon of crowding, where the recognition of individual letters is impaired by the close proximity of surrounding letters. Children with dyslexia are disproportionately affected by crowding, compared to normally developing children (Martelli et al., 2009). Other aspects of the printed word are known to affect reading ability, but surprisingly little is known about letter spacing. The recommendations of the British Dyslexia Association include optimizing the size and type of font, page layout, headings, type of paper, and line spacing but not letter spacing.1

The collaborative effort was a deliberate attempt to compare two languages that have different types of spelling-to-sound translation. Italian has completely regular spelling rules (a transparent orthography), meaning there are no exception words. Each combination of printed letters is always pronounced in a consistent way. By contrast, written French is orthographically opaque, meaning that pesky irregular spellings can trip you up. This is true in English as well: compare the pronunciation of the word "pint" to "hint", "mint", and "lint". The /i/ sound wins out over the /ī/ sound, in terms of regularity.

In the study, 34 Italian and 40 French children with dyslexia were tested on two separate occasions at least two weeks apart. They read 24 short sentences, which were written in standard text in one session and highly spaced text in the other. The order of sessions was counterbalanced to control for practice effects,2 with half assigned to read the spaced text at T1 and the other half at T2. Reading accuracy (number of errors) and reading speed (number of syllables per second) both interacted with test session (p<.0001), indicating a drastic improvement with the highly spaced text. This was true for both the Italian and the French children with dyslexia.

Fig. 2 (Zorzi et al., 2012). (C) Reading accuracy (number of errors) in the normal and spaced text conditions for Italian dyslexics, French dyslexics, and a younger group of Italian control children matched for reading level (RL) to the Italian dyslexic sample.

It came as quite a surprise to me that no one had demonstrated this letter spacing effect before. But then again, I'm not familiar with the literature on developmental reading disorders, so perhaps Professor Dorothy Bishop or Livia Blackburne can provide a more critical take on an [apparently] amazing finding.

Finally, the authors have developed DYS, a free iPhone/iPad application. You can test out the spacing effect for yourself and submit your results anonymously, in the name of science!

For more information, see the WSJ Health Blog.


1 Also note that bold is preferable to italic, as the latter induces crowding.

2 A control experiment in a different group of children presented the normal and spaced text within a single session, again in counterbalanced order. The critical difference here was that different sentences were used in each condition, so practice effects wouldn't be an issue.


Martelli M, Di Filippo G, Spinelli D, Zoccolotti P (2009). Crowding, reading, and developmental dyslexia. J Vis 9: 14, 1–18.

Marco Zorzi, Chiara Barbiero, Andrea Facoetti, Isabella Lonciari, Marco Carrozzi, Marcella Montico, Laura Bravar, Florence George, Catherine Pech-Georgel, and Johannes C. Ziegler (2012). Extra-large letter spacing improves reading in dyslexia. PNAS. doi:10.1073/pnas.1205566109.

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Saturday, June 02, 2012

Compulsion to write caused by seizure, whether at work or at leisure

Hypergraphia is a compulsive or overwhelming urge to write, often associated with temporal lobe epilepsy. Influential behavioral neurologist Norman Geschwind included hypergraphia as one of the personality changes that can be observed in persons with temporal lobe epilepsy.

An unusual example of hypergraphia was observed by Dr. Mario F. Mendez, who reported the unique case of a 58 year old man who felt utterly compelled to write poetry (Mendez, 2005). The patient reported no previous history of being a poet until the age of 53, when he felt the urge to write in rhyme. He said that words are "continuously rhyming in [my] head" and felt the need to write them down and show them to other people. He didn't speak in verse, nor did he write nonrhyming prose or read others' poetry.

Thus, his condition was a very specific hypergraphia for poetry. The rhyming condition coincided with the onset of other behavioral symptoms, namely irritability and anger. Shortly thereafter he began to have partial complex seizures, which typically have foci (or origins) in the medial temporal lobes.
His seizures manifested as a sensation "rising" in his stomach followed by a brief alteration of consciousness. Seizure control with phenytoin and gabapentin ameliorated his irritability and anger but did not diminish his constant need to write in rhyme. ...

The patient underwent a repeat evaluation. On examination, he was circumstantial and somewhat viscous. He repeatedly emphasized the significance of his symptom of poetry writing, and continually responded in written poetry. Language, mental status, and neurological examinations were otherwise normal except for a slightly broad-based and unsteady gait. He had right temporal spikes on electroencephalograms and small strokes in the right thalamus and the right cerebellum on neuroimaging.

However, Mendez (2005) did not think the small right hemisphere strokes caused the patient's hypergraphia. The author was also skeptical that ongoing subthreshold ictal activity was solely responsible, because the seizures were well-controlled yet the poetry continued. Another possible explanation was related to persistent hypofunctioning in the right hemisphere, which could lead to disinhibition or "unmasking" of poetic abilities in the left hemisphere.1 This hypothesis assumes that the right temporal lobe maintains tonic control over neural activity in the left hemisphere, so we don't all turn into Joyce Kilmer.


A notoriously hypergraphic writer of poetry and prose was Arthur Crew Inman (1895-1963), who will be the subject of Hypergraphia, a forthcoming film starring John Hurt.

Arthur Crew Inman was a reclusive and unsuccessful poet whose 17-million word diary, extending from 1919 to 1963, provides a panoramic record of people, events, and observations from more than four decades of the twentieth century.


1 Most people are left hemisphere dominant for rhyme generation (Krach & Hartje, 2006).


Mendez, M. (2005). Hypergraphia for Poetry in an Epileptic Patient Journal of Neuropsychiatry, 17 (4), 560-561. DOI: 10.1176/appi.neuropsych.17.4.560

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