Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Voodoo of Peer Review

Are blogs good or bad for the enterprise of scientific peer review? At present, the system relies on anonymous referees to provide "unbiased" opinions of a paper's (or grant's) merits. For today, the discussion will focus on peer review of papers in scientific journals.

In Seed Magazine:
That Voodoo That Scientists Do

When findings are debated online, as with a yet to be released paper that calls out the field of social neuroscience, who wins?

by Jon Bardin • Posted February 23, 2009 11:55 AM

I think science wins!

The notion that "in press" papers are off-limits to online discussion is very quaint... Discussing (and citing) such manuscripts in the "normal academic channels" is a frequent event; why should bloggers refrain from such a practice?

Bardin's article begins:
Few endeavors have been affected more by the tools and evolution of the internet than science publishing. Thousands of journals are available online, and an increasing number of science bloggers are acting as translators, often using lay language to convey complex findings previously read only by fellow experts within a discipline. Now, in the wake of a new paper challenging the methodology of a young field, there is a case study for how the internet is changing the way science itself is conducted.
Really? Maybe that's true for Biological and Social Sciences, but certainly not for Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science, Quantitative Biology, Quantitative Finance and Statistics (see, which was started in 1991 by Paul Ginsparg). Given that the field of academic physics adopted an electronic publishing model very early on, what's the role of physics journals? Well, circa 1994...

...It is ordinarily claimed that journals play two intellectual roles: a) to communicate research information, and b) to validate this information for the purpose of job and grant allocation.

As I've explained, the role of journals as communicators of information has long since been supplanted in certain fields of physics, so let's consider their other role. Having queried a number of colleagues concerning the criteria they use in evaluating job applicants and grant proposals, it turns out that the otherwise unqualified number of published papers is too coarse a criterion and plays essentially no role. Researchers are typically familiar with the research in their own field, and must in any event independently evaluate it together with letters of recommendation from trusted sources. Recent activity levels of candidates were mentioned as a criterion, but that too is independent of publication per se: "hot preprints" on a CV can be as important as any publication.

But what about peer review??
Although the arXiv is not peer-reviewed, a collection of moderators for each area review the submissions and may recategorize any that are deemed off-topic...

. . .

The lack of peer-review, while a concern to some, is not considered a hindrance to those who use the arXiv. Many authors exercise care in what they post. A majority of the e-prints are also submitted to journals for publication, but some work, including some very influential papers, remain purely as e-prints and are never published in a peer-reviewed journal.
So brand new manuscripts in those fields are placed in a public archive before they are peer-reviewed. It's not a new idea, and it's much more radical than discussing an already-reviewed manuscript that has been accepted for publication.

And that's the paper we've all come to know and love (or hate): the one by Ed Vul and colleagues on Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience (PDF), summarized in this post. In their article, Vul et al. claimed that over half of the fMRI studies that were surveyed used faulty statistical techniques to analyze their data. Two rebuttals were released online shortly thereafter: one by Jabbi et al. (in preparation, PDF) and an invited reply by Lieberman et al. (submitted, PDF).

What's the problem here? It's that bloggers were writing about it! That authors and anonymous commenters somehow sullied their ideological purity by entering the free-wheeling, fast-moving world of the blogosphere. But in the modern era, why wait 5 months for a paper to be "officially" published before you're allowed to discuss it? And despite what the critics of Voodoo say, Vul et al.'s paper was not plastered all over the popular press (unlike many of the Voodoo findings themselves1). In one of the higher-profile popular outlets, Scientific American published dueling interviews with Matthew Lieberman (left) and Ed Vul (right), with Voodoo Correlations: Have the Results of Some Brain Scanning Experiments Been Overstated? vs. In Defense of the Value of Social Neuroscience.

The only other mainstream media exposure has been from Sharon Begley of Newsweek, who covered the issue in her blog (i.e., The 'Voodoo' Science of Brain Imaging and More on Brain Voodoo) and in one of her magazine columns. But many are dubious. According to Seed:
Two groups of neuroimaging scientists, shocked by the speed with which this paper was being publicly disseminated, wrote rebuttals and posted them in the comments section of several blogs, including Begley's. Vul followed up in kind, linking to a rebuttal of the rebuttals in the comment sections of several blogs. This kind of scientific discourse — which typically takes place in the front matter of scholarly journals or over the course of several conferences — developed at a breakneck pace, months before the findings were officially published, and among the usual chaos of blog comments: inane banter, tangents, and valid opinions from the greater public.
The usual chaos of blog comments? Hello?? How about anonymous referees for journals? Are they never ever guilty of reviews filled with inane banter and tangents? We've all had exposure -- whether from our bosses, advisors, or colleagues or through our own experience -- to rude and nasty and ill-informed reviewers. And many journal editors do not rein them in. The Neurocritic has been a proponent of completely open peer review, where the identity of the authors and the reviewers is known (see Anonymous Peer Review Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry, Peer Review Trial and Debate at Nature, and Double-Blind Bind). That way, Dr. Nasty can't hide behind the shield of anonymity when making those dumb-ass comments. In the meantime, here's another possible solution, from a poll by Talking Brains:
Is it ethical for an author to post anonymous reviews of her/his paper online?

38 (48%)
32 (40%)
Not sure
9 (11%)

Votes so far: 79 [Poll closed ]
Back to the chaos (and the use of loaded language):

Tor Wager, a Columbia University cognitive neuroscientist, whose work was not mentioned in Vul's paper but who helped prepare one of the rebuttals, says that it was important to respond both publicly and swiftly. "The public and the news media operate on sound bites, and the real scientific issues are quite complex." His complaints focus not only on the content of Vul's paper, but also on the authors' diction — specifically, the title, and its use of "voodoo."

"When the conversation gets complex — and with statistics it always is — many blog readers will form opinions based on very simple things," says Wager. "Like words such as 'voodoo correlations.' There's no reason to use such loaded words when making a statistical argument. The argument should be able to stand on its own."

And so Ed Diener, the editor of Perspectives in Psychological Science, has stricken the offending word from the title..........

But Dr. Wager is no stranger to the media, since he has positioned his own work for widespread media coverage:
• Meta-analysis work featured in The Economist (Dec 2006)
• Interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation (with Ira Flatow, 2007)
• TV Interview: CNN (2004); on placebo effects
• Interview for NPR’s Radio Lab series (2007); on placebo effects
• Placebo work featured in article in Wired Magazine
• Placebo work featured in article in National Geographic
• News coverage of placebo work: MSNBC, BBC, LA Times, Reuters, other news services
...and the social neuroscientists are allowed to benefit from all the fawning press coverage that overstates their results, and from the increases in funding that follow. But when one -- ONE -- paper dares to criticize some of the methodology, that's dangerous. AND IT MUST BE STOPPED! Because we all know that bloggers influence funding decisions.

Vul has a different take. Once their paper had passed peer review, Vul and his colleagues argue, it was the public's right to read about it, and respond to it, however they chose — especially given that it sought to reveal flaws in publicly funded research that gets widespread media coverage.
Needless to say, I agree with this point, but I've also publicized the rebuttals as well (as noted in the Seed article):
Comment wars
Starting January 12, anonymous commenters on the Neurocritic's blog posted rebuttals from Vul's detractors; and Vul followed with rebuttals of the rebuttals.
Go bloggers! And now it's official: Nature declares that It's good to blog!

More researchers should engage with the blogosphere, including authors of papers in press.

Is blogging a part of science, journalism or public discourse? In fact it may be all of these — an ambiguity that can sometimes leave scientists feeling uncertain about the rules of the game.

...but only up to a point:

The blogosphere differs from mass media and specialized media in many respects, but the same considerations apply in disseminating new scientific results there. Authors of papers in press have the right to correct misrepresentations and to point to results that will appear in a paper. But a full discussion should await the paper's publication.

Nonetheless, they end on a positive note:

Indeed, researchers would do well to blog more than they do. The experience of journals such as Cell and PLoS ONE, which allow people to comment on papers online, suggests that researchers are very reluctant to engage in such forums. But the blogosphere tends to be less inhibited, and technical discussions there seem likely to increase.

Moreover, there are societal debates that have much to gain from the uncensored voices of researchers. A good blogging website consumes much of the spare time of the one or several fully committed scientists that write and moderate it. But it can make a difference to the quality and integrity of public discussion.

Many of us believe that is true. And with that, it's time for me to go to bed.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Guantánamo Testimonials Project and The Neurobiology of Psychological Torture

"I have seen and done many horrible things, either at Guantánamo or in Iraq, and I know what it is like to try and move on with your life. It's hard."

-Spc. Brandon Neely

The goal of The Guantánamo Testimonials Project is to collect information about prisoner abuse at the notorious detention camp, which will be closed within a year by President Obama's executive order. The project is housed at the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas (CSHRA) at the University of California, Davis. Recently, former guard Brandon Neely has come forward with his harrowing testimony, which has received extensive press coverage:
Former Gitmo guard recalls abuse, climate of fear

By MIKE MELIA, Associated Press Writer – Sat Feb 14, 11:15 am ET

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Army Pvt. Brandon Neely was scared when he took Guantanamo's first shackled detainees off a bus. Told to expect vicious terrorists, he grabbed a trembling, elderly detainee and ground his face into the cement — the first of a range of humiliations he says he participated in and witnessed as the prison was opening for business.

Neely has now come forward in this final year of the detention center's existence, saying he wants to publicly air his feelings of guilt and shame about how some soldiers behaved as the military scrambled to handle the first alleged al-Qaida and Taliban members arriving at the isolated U.S. Navy base

. . .

Neely's account sheds new light on the early days of Guantanamo, where guards were hastily deployed in January 2002 and were soon confronted by men stumbling out of planes, shackled and wearing blackout goggles. They were held in chain-link cages and moved to more permanent structures three months later.

The soldiers, many of them still in their teens, had no detailed standard operating procedures and were taught hardly anything about the Geneva Conventions, which provide guidelines for humane treatment of prisoners of war, Neely said, though some learned about them on their own initiative.

"Most of us who had everyday contact with the detainees were really young," he said in the AP telephone interview.
In addition to the Testimonial Project, CSHRA has another project on The Neurobiology of Psychological Torture:
... Psychological torture (henceforth PT) is a set of practices that are used worldwide to inflict pain or suffering without resorting to direct physical violence. PT includes the use of sleep deprivation, sensory disorientation, forced self-induced pain, solitary confinement, mock execution, severe humiliation, mind-altering drugs and threats of violence—as well as the exploitation of personal or cultural phobias. The psychiatric sequelae of PT are severe. They include delirium, psychosis, regression, self-mutilation, cognitive impairment, and anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Neuroscience research on these and related mental disorders continues to establish their neurobiological underpinnings, thus challenging the popular view that PT is not physical, not serious, and perhaps not even torture at all.

Rendered brain showing abnormal brain activity in torture victims. This picture (white-gray matter border) shows regions in red with excess slow wave activity which is strongest in the left insula (see Kolassa et al. "Imaging the trauma: altered cortical dynamics after repeated traumatic stress") and the left frontal inferior region (see Ray, William and Thomas Elbert "Survivors of organized violence often left with traumatic memories." Psychological Science Volume 17, Issue 10, October 2006). Blue indicates less activity than normal (N = 97 / group). Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Thomas Elbert, Univerity of Konstanz, Germany.

The proceedings from a workshop conducted in 2006 have been published as a book, The Trauma of Psychological Torture. Now that the Bush years are (thankfully) behind us, perhaps more of this important work will be funded as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which awarded an additional $10.4 billion to the National Institutes of Health.

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Very Gradual CHANGE We Can Believe In

Darwin spoof posters from University of Illinois graduate student Mike Rosulek.

via Laughing Squid.

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Spanner or Sex Object?

Sex objects: Pictures shift men's view of women

by Ian Sample, Chicago

Men are more likely to think of women as objects if they have looked at sexy pictures of females beforehand, psychologists said yesterday.

Researchers used brain scans to show that when straight men looked at pictures of women in bikinis, areas of the brain that normally light up in anticipation of using tools, like spanners and screwdrivers, were activated.

Scans of some of the men found that a part of the brain associated with empathy for other peoples' emotions and wishes shut down after looking at the pictures.

Susan Fiske, a psychologist at Princeton University in New Jersey, said the changes in brain activity suggest sexy images can shift the way men perceive women, turning them from people to interact with, to objects to act upon.
That was remarkably even-handed coverage from of an unpublished study that was presented at the recent AAAS Meeting in Chicago. A search of the meeting website turned up this abstract:

Within session:
Envy Up and Contempt Down: Neural and Emotional Signatures of Social Hierarchies
Susan T. Fiske, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
Mina Cikara

Ann Marie Russell
People think and feel about each other along two apparently universal dimensions. Warmth answers “friend or foe?” (intentions). Competence answers “what can you do?” (can the other enact those intentions). These fundamental dimensions drive emotions and behavior, all resulting from social structural relationships of interdependence and status. Most relevant, perceived status confers perceived competence, a ringing endorsement of meritocracy. Our new neural work goes beyond verbal report to document social cognition’s earliest moments. Laboratory and imaging studies focus on low-warmth, allegedly competitive outgroups, differing only in status: (a) low-status, allegedly exploitative outgroups (e.g., undocumented immigrants, homeless people, welfare recipients), who elicit disgust and contempt, and (b) high-status, allegedly exploitative outgroups (e.g., Asians, Jews, minority professionals, career women), who elicit envy and jealousy. Intergroup envy and contempt have consequences.

OK, the abstract doesn't specifically mention the tool/bikini experiment, so we have to rely on newspaper articles and quotes from the first author. Judging from the first 4 paragraphs of the Guardian article, Fiske's conclusions rely on the logical fallacy of reverse inference - one cannot directly infer the participants' cognitive or emotional state from the observed pattern of brain activity in neuroimaging experiments. How do we know that the "sex object" neural response was related to tool use? Did the experiment require the subjects to use tools? Did it explicitly ask them to anticipate using tools? How about watching others use tools? The latter condition might activate regions containing mirror neurons, if you're a believer in that sort of thing. In fact, one recent study (Mouras et al., 2008) claimed that Mirror neurons control erection response to porn (although The Neurocritic was skeptical: Mirror Neurons Control Hard-ons?).

In an earlier study, Ponsetti et al. (2006) showed pictures of male and female sexually aroused genitals to gay and straight male and female participants [see An "Endophenotype" For Sexual Orientation? for a full description of that study]. Those authors summarized their results as follows:
Consistent with our prediction, the ventral striatum and the centromedian thalamus, showed a stronger neuronal response to preferred relative to non-preferred stimuli. Likewise, the ventral premotor cortex which is a key structure for imitative (mirror neurons) and tool-related (canonical neurons) actions showed a bilateral sexual preference-specific activation, suggesting that viewing sexually aroused genitals of the preferred sex triggers action representations of sexual behavior.
Going back to Fiske et al. (unpublished), we're a little short on methodological details, and yet the credulous press coverage and outraged blog posts were taking the results at face value. What did the experiment actually do, and what were the results? As summarized in
In the study, Fiske's team put straight men into an MRI brain scanner and showed them images of either clothed men and women, or more scantily clad men and women. When they took a memory test afterwards, the men best remembered images of bikini-clad women whose heads had been digitally removed.

The brain scans showed that when men saw the images of the women's bodies, activity increased in part of the brain called the premotor cortex, which is involved in urges to take action. The same area lights up before using power tools to do DIY. "It's as if they immediately thought to act on theses bodies," Fiske said.

Wow! "Urges to take action" that specifically relate to using power tools!! So by that logic, maybe the male subjects were all ax murderers....

...or maybe they imagined starting up the chainsaw for their latest massacre. The women's bodies were already headless, now weren't they... You can see where this is going. You can make up just about any story, and it would fit these data. Perhaps the guys were trying to inhibit sexual arousal, for example. But it's sheer speculation at the moment, since I haven't read the p/reprint.

And for the grand finale, do we have a case of voodoo correlations in social neuroscience (Vul et al., 2009)?
In the final part of the study, Fiske asked the men to fill in a questionnaire that was used to assess how sexist they were. The brain scans showed that men who scored highest had very little activity in the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions that are involved with understanding another person's feelings and intentions. "They're reacting to these women as if they're not fully human," Fiske said.
Ugh. So to Comrade PhysioProf and Pandagon and other critics of evolutionary psychology who have commented on this study: the fMRI results might not even have anything to do with the objectification of women.

More coverage is available at the Daily Princetonian (Men view half-naked women as objects, study finds), where we have more overreaching...
“I think [the study] does relate to the effects of having pornography and sexualized images of women around and in the media because they spill over into how people treat women in general,” Fiske said, adding that these images may dehumanize women and encourage men to see them as objects. “You have to be aware of the effect of these images on people,” Fiske explained. “They’re not neutral. They do have an effect on how people think about other women.”

...and at the 60 Second Psych podcast at Scientific American, where you can hear Fiske talk about her research:
Fiske explained that the areas, the premotor cortex and posterior middle temporal gyrus [which is involved in many things other than tool use], typically light up when one anticipates using tools, like a screwdriver. "I’m not saying that they literally think these photographs of women are photographs of tools per se, or photographs of non-humans, but what the brain imaging data allow us to do is to look at it as scientific metaphor. That is, they are reacting to these photographs as people react to objects."

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Encephalon - 64th Edition

Welcome to the Sixty-Fourth Edition of Encephalon, a neuroscience and psychology blog carnival. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t procrastinate just a bit on writing this post… I was hoping that a “Darwinian Presidential Valentine Encephalon for Paraskavedekatriaphobics” theme might emerge from the large number of submissions, but it did not. So without further ado, let us tally no longer, onward and upward..... hey, stop procrastinating!

Doctor Spurt at Effortless Incitement advises us to be concrete in order to achieve a distant goal in Construal Level and Procrastination. Construal-level theory holds that “events that are distant in time tend to be represented more abstractly than are events that are close in time.” To test how this idea might relate to procrastination, McCrea et al. (2008) distributed questionnaires to be returned at a later date. Those with questions that were framed in more abstract terms (e.g., “what characteristics are implied by opening a bank account?”) were returned at a more laggardly rate than those with more concrete requirements (“how do you go about opening a bank account?”).

Would I lie to you about lie detection? Kylie Sturgess from PodBlack Cat reviews the new TV show, Lie To Me, and likes what she sees so far:
Right now I’m watching the second episode, where it begins with lie detectors and how they’re little better than holding a West African Egg.

In West Africa anyone suspected of a crime was made to hand a bird’s egg to another person. Anyone who broke the egg would be considered guilty, based on their nervousness.

In ancient China suspects were told to hold a handful of rice in their mouths during a prosecutor’s argument. The suspect was considered guilty if, by the end of that argument, the rice stayed dry — because salivation was believed to cease in times of anxiety.

And all bogus as a lie detector.

Speaking of lying and reviews, individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are notoriously incapable of detecting deceit from another person’s facial expression, body language, or tone of voice. They are also unlikely to deceive other people, although some with ASD (autistic savants) show remarkable abilities in other realms. Arj from ** Science On Tap ** reviews Daniel Tammet’s new book:

Autistic savant Daniel Tammet's first book, "Born On A Blue Day" was an international best-seller as an engaging autobiographical overview of his fascinating life and talents. His new book, "Embracing The Wide Sky" is a more scientific look at the way his mind works, and provocatively covers a range of cognitive issues. Tammet's perspective is utterly unique, as an articulate, thoughtful savant who can introspectively analyze his own mind workings.

Synesthesia, a "neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway," is not uncommon in people with ASD. Tammet discusses his own synesthesic percepts, which include numbers that have color and texture, or shape. Mo from Neurophilosophy discusses a new study establishing that synesthesia has a genetic component. Prior research assumed that the condition might be X-linked (because it affects more females than males) and transmitted by a single gene. But the truth is more complex, as usual:

Researchers from the University of Oxford have now conducted the first genome-wide search for genes linked to the condition. In the American Journal of Human Genetics, they report the identification of a number of genes that are likely to be involved in auditory-visual synaesthesia, in which sounds are perceived as colours. The study reveals also that synaesthesia is not X-linked, and that the genetics of this form of synaesthesia - and probably that of other forms - is far more complex than previously thought.
(Image Credit: Jane Mackay)

Jane Mackay painted “Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto” to create a synesthetic composition that bridges the gap between sight and sound. [from Yale Scientific Magazine]

Interestingly, one of the chromosomal regions identified in the Oxford study contains a gene associated with autism. Sandeep Gautam from The Mouse Trap has written about the existence of a continuum between autism and schizophenia in the past. A "dueling parental genes" version of this hypothesis was featured in a Nature essay last year and received coverage in the New York Times. Sandy’s current submission covers Psychosis and Salience dysregulation. According to this view, the neurotransmitter dopamine is involved in assigning salience and motivational significance to internal and external events. Excessive dopamine release in schizophrenia can result in an aberrant emphasis on internal representations (thoughts, perceptions, memories) relative to external sensory stimuli in the environment. Jim van Os goes even further, arguing for the end of “schizophrenia” as a diagnostic entity and the beginning of “salience dysregulation syndrome.” Most would agree that that the DSM-IV label “schizophrenia” can refer to quite different disorders. However, this new scheme suffers from its own categorical limitations (in my opinion) because salience dysregulation syndrome (van Os, 2009) can manifest...

with affective expression (high in mania/depression dimension); with developmental expression (high in developmental cognitive deficit/negative symptoms); and not otherwise specified.

...depending on whether certain “thresholds” for the various dimensional components are exceeded.

But dopamine can be fun too! Yay! But not for the mouse that couldn't get high. Boo. At Neurotopia, Scicurious comments on the latest paper about the dopamine transporter knockout mouse (DAT-KO) and the rewarding and reinforcing effects of cocaine. DAT recycles dopamine (DA) from the synapse back into the neuron, so the DAT-KO mice have an excess of DA hanging around their synapses. However, earlier studies found that DAT-KO mice did self-administer cocaine…gasp!
If cocaine was rewarding WITHOUT increasing DA levels in the brain, the dopamine theory of addiction was wrong, and a bunch of scientists were going to have to stop going to things like "dopamine dinners" and "the international conference on dopamine".
The current crop of DAT-KO mice was different, although it’s not clear why. Could it be that different stem cells were used to create each mouse line?? I’m going to the next “dopamine dinner” to find out.

Ward Plunet of Brain Health Hacks asks, Do antidepressant work just because they make you hungry? What he really should have asked is "Do antipsychotics work just because they make you hungry?", because the drugs in question include olanzapine (Zyprexa) and clozapine (Clozaril), which are atypical antipsychotics. These are well-known for causing significant weight gain, and one mechanism for this might involve increases in ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite. Many of the atypicals are already in use for treating bipolar disorder, but they are not at all typical (yet) for unipolar depression. In November 2007, the FDA approved aripiprazole (Abilify) as an add-on medication for unremitting depression (meaning, the patients were already taking an antidepressant drug but were still depressed).

Moving into the topic of conventional antidepressant drugs, one proposed mechanism of action is through neurogenesis, or the growth of new neurons, in the hippocampal region of the medial temporal lobe (specifically, the dentate gyrus field). Andy from discusses the enhancement of neurogenesis in adulthood resulting from exposure to an enriched environment. Another route to increased neurogenesis involves conditioned responses in hippocampal-dependent learning tasks. Since the hippocampus is a critical for learning and memory, do these new neurons contribute to an improvement in these tasks? That does seem to be the case.

But is altered neuroplasticity a cause or an effect of major depression? Although neurogenesis has been seen as the “next new thing” to explain the efficacy of antidepressant drugs, this view is not without controversy. Another proposed contributor to the etiology of mood disorders (especially bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder) is dysregulation of circadian rhythms. For an overview, Lithium, Circadian Clocks and Bipolar Disorder (and anything else on the subject by Coturnix of A Blog Around The Clock fame) is a good place to start. One current submission from Amiya Sarkar (of Physiology Physics Woven Fine) reviews the Molecular Basis of Genetic Switch In The Circadian Clock.

Continuing with the general theme of mental health, Sandra Kiume presents Suicide Hashtag Livetweeting. A recent suicide standoff and the mediated reactions of people on Twitter are analyzed for the World of Psychology blog. The post includes a Twitter glossary, and the launch of a new resource for people in distress seeking crisis resources and information: the #unsuicide hashtag.

February 12 was the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the great U.S. president who ended slavery. The Neurocritic (courtesy of Channel N) featured a President's Day video on Lincoln's battle with depression, produced by John McManamy. For more background, read the detailed biography Lincoln's Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk.

February 12 also marked the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, father of the theory of evolution by natural selection. We all know that acquired traits cannot be inherited, right? Two of our contributors tackle a recent paper that potentially raises a thorny exception to the rule (at least, if you believe the simplistic popular coverage of the finding, which you should not).

First up is John Fossella of Genes to Brains to Mental Health, who wishes a Happy 200th birthday Charles Darwin ! Here’s an inherited acquired characteristic for you:
[Arai et al., 2009] measured a trait known as long-term potentiation (LTP), wherein a synapse fires in a longer and stronger fashion. This type of potentiation is thought to be a basic mechanism that neural networks use in learning and memory formation. In their paper, the team found that certain synapses in the hippocampus were potentiated when animals were exposed to an “enriched” environment (normally mice are caged in empty bins lined with woodchips, but an enriched environment is one filled with tunnels, hidden passages, toys, ropes to climb & other stuff to discover and learn about). The team shows that, in response to an enriched environment, the mice acquire the LTP trait.

The next thing the team found was that the offspring of female (but not male) mice that had acquired the LTP trait - did also show the LTP trait - even when they, themselves, did not experience the enriched environment. Thus, the so-called acquired trait (LTP) was inherited by the offspring. Hmmmm - sounds a bit Lamarckian to me, or, as the authors of this research article suggest, “Lamarckian-like”. Is this a case that violates core tenets of the modern synthesis ? Does it besmirch Darwin on his 200th birthday ?
NO!! Find out why not by reading the rest of the post.

In addition, Robert Sylwester from SharpBrains provides a helpful lay overview of this study in A Love affair Across Generations: A Lamarckian Reincarnation? He takes up the environmental enrichment angle, notes the contributions of pioneering researchers (i.e., Dr. Marian C. Diamond and Dr. William T. Greenough), and concludes with the importance of this work for educators.

These results provide our second example of neuroplasticity resulting from environmental enrichment (e.g., “exposure to novel objects, elevated social interactions and voluntary exercise”) in rodents. What about neuroplasticity in humans? What constitutes effective "environmental enrichment"? The "brain training" industry is big business now. Rats aren't susceptible to overbearing marketing tactics or the placebo effect, so how do you separate the help from the hype? Two recent papers are of interest here. The first did a meta-analysis of studies examining the effects of brain training programs in healthy elderly participants (Papp et al., 2009). The authors concluded that the cognitive interventions weren't very effective. The second paper [the IMPACT study] reported modest benefits in auditory memory/attention from engaging in a particular computerized training program (Smith et al., 2009). In Brain Training: It Works, and It Doesn't Work, Alvaro Fernandez discusses the IMPACT study and suggests we move beyond simplistic notions that such training programs are either magic bullets or completely bogus. Look for commentary from The Neurocritic in the coming days...

Are you superstitious? Were you afraid to use your laptop on Friday the 13th? Or were you feeling lucky?

Dr. Romeo Vitelli of Providentia is not a gambling man. In Playing The Odds, a recent trip to Las Vegas reminded him of B.F. Skinner, operant conditioning, and his days as an undergraduate psychology major. Similarities between the variable reinforcement schedule provided to a white lab rat in a Skinner Box and a human gambler playing those slot machines were noted.

Still feeling irrational? Then watch Dan Ariely: Tendencies of Irrational Behavior, via Channel N. Behavioral economist Ariely gives a witty 20 minute lecture explaining cognitive illusions, defaults, and irrational decision-making. A nice presentation with enhanced multimedia features.

In Temperamental Journey, Doc (aka Mormon MD) of Mind, Soul, and Body reviews Jerome Kagan’s seminal work on temperament in infants and links to an archival interview with Natasha Mitchell for an All in the Mind Podcast. The inevitable nature/nurture question arises during the course of the interview. Is who we are determined more by experience or biology? “Why does this question persist?” is my own reply to the query. I think it is a false dichotomy, as do most reasonable contemporary scientists. As Kagan explains:
‘the development of a person is like a cloth that appears to us to be grey but it’s composed of infinitely tiny black threads - biology - infinitely tiny white threads - experience - but you don’t see any black and white threads, all you see is the grey cloth.’ A person is that cloth and it’s combined of both and to ask which is more important is like asking about a Christmas blizzard - which is more important the temperature or the humidity? The answer is they are both important.”
Doc uses this viewpoint as a segue to his discuss own experience as a pediatric neurologist. Although I am much more of a reductionist, he does provide an interesting perspective on the acceptance of ambiguity in clinical practice.

Joseph Kim of Brain Blogger offers an opinion piece on Bias in Medical Education. "Is all bias bad?" he asks. Or are some forms of bias appropriate? For example, take this Primer on Acupuncture. There are plenty of reasons to be biased against alternative medical treatments that don't work. Here are a few of the reasons why Steve Novella Is Skeptical of Acupuncture:
1) Acupuncture is a pre-scientific superstition

2) Acupuncture lacks a plausible mechanism

3) Claims for efficacy are often based upon a bait-and-switch deception

4) Clinical trials show that acupuncture does not work
But I guess that's pretty "biased" of him, isn't it?

Advances in the History of Psychology returns to our carnival after a long absence. Jeremy Burman has submitted a quartet of posts to prevent Encephalon readers from slipping into an ahistoric stupor. Let's begin with a video on the origins of Experimental Psychology, which features Chris Green (president of the Society for the History of Psychology) in “an impossibly brief history of the origins of experimental psychology, from Aristotle to Wundt.”

An exciting new resource is now available online! Scientifica: Source of French Phrenology provides links to the phrenology collection. After that, you can witness The Demise of Dutch Phenomenological Psych.

And for the Anglophiles who assumed that dusty old 19th century psychoanalysis was only for literary critics: think again! Fiction and 'la guerre des psys' in France informs us that only recently have the French taken up the fad of psychoanalysis-bashing and CBT-promotion (Kemp, 2008), sparking what
L’Express has dubbed ‘la guerre des psys’… The French media widely discussed a controversial 2004 report by INSERM, Psychothérapie, trois approches évalués, which found psychoanalysis ineffective in the treatment of schizophrenia and depression, and vaunted the benefits of cognitive behaviour therapy.

Really? You mean schizophrenia can’t be cured by 1,000 sessions on the couch in an analyst's office?

Another historical post is provided by Providentia. In Shooting Dr. Tourette, we learn that the prominent French neurologist (the eponym of Tourette's syndrome) was shot in the back of the neck by a former patient:

Rose maintained that Tourette and the other Salpetriere doctors had hypnotized her against her will and her defense attorney even argued that the hypnosis had somehow caused the shooting. Following a sensational trial, the judge eventually ruled that hypnosis had nothing to do with Rose Kamper's actions and she was declared insane.

Although Dr. Tourette recovered physically from the shooting, the emotional impact would linger. Rose Kamper's testimony and the heavy newspaper coverage of the trial damaged his professional reputation. Despite his fame as a physician and numerous honours, Gilles de la Tourette's condition began deteriorating with fluctuating episodes of depression, mania and mental confusion.

He died at the age of 46, possibly from neurosyphilis.

Our next post is positively prehistoric. The second entry from Neurophilosophy presents a fascinating review on the Brain & behaviour of dinosaurs. It summarizes the work of Lawrence Witmer and colleagues, who scan fossilized dinosaur skulls and then use sophisticated micro-computed tomographic techniques to reconstruct their brains. Then they make inferences about the dinosaurs' behavior.

Now it's back to the present with a three-part series from JLK of Pieces of Me on the psychology of men and the construction of masculinity.

Gender Part 1: Boys Don't Cry

Gender Part 1: Better Than Thou

Gender Part 1: Defining Manhood

Brandon Teena (a.k.a. Teena Brandon)
Born: December 12, 1972
Birthplace: Lincoln, Nebraska,
Date of Death: December 31, 1993 (murdered)

It's intended to be part of an even larger series on gender:
My intention is to compose a series of posts dedicated to this topic. I will cover women's, men's, transgender, and intersex issues over the course of the series. They will be primarily non-academic in nature because I know that most of my readers are in vastly different fields. Therefore, I will refer you to books and things that are written for the masses for more information, and if anyone wants journal articles just let me know. Favorite books on the topic are interspersed throughout the post.
Why aren't there any men's studies programs? Isn't that a silly idea?
What we have created is a male culture that values fierce independence, control or lack of emotions, no tolerance for weakness, and a disdain for anything "feminine."

Men aren't born that way. We make them that way. And then we wonder why women have a hard time getting ahead in a male-dominated career path, why the kiss of death for a woman is to cry at work, why men don't help out with children and the household as much as we would like them to, why HOMOPHOBIA EXISTS.
There's so much ugliness in the world, so let's turn to something beautiful, and that would be Brainbow.

A Snapshot of Memory. This image from the hippocampus shows smaller glial cells (the small ovals) among neurons (larger, with more filaments). The hippocampus is known to play a major role in memory formation.

For more on this artful science, read Fantastic Fluorescence: Brainbow and The Nobel Prize 2008.

Last (but not least) is a fun demonstration from Cognitive Daily that uses the rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) method. What are The words you can't ignore, even if you only see them for 1/10 of a second? Sex words and taboo words draw attention away from the task of detecting a target word (color names) in the visual stream. See for yourself!

That's it for this edition. Thanks to everyone who contributed. The next Encephalon will appear on March 2 at PodBlack Cat.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Everybody Loves Friday the 13th!

...except for paraskavedekatriaphobes (and my Sony Vaio SZ series notebook computer).
The fear of Friday the 13th is called paraskavedekatriaphobia, a word derived from the concatenation of the Greek words Paraskeví (Παρασκευή) (meaning Friday), and dekatreís (δεκατρείς) (meaning thirteen), attached to phobía (φοβία) (meaning fear). This is a specialized form of triskaidekaphobia, a simple phobia (fear) of the number thirteen, and is also known as friggatriskaidekaphobia. The term triskaidekaphobia was derived in 1911 and first appeared in a mainstream source in 1953.

And the computer? Instead of going into sleep mode on Friday the 13th, it rebooted itself to a black screen. After running diagnostics and booting up in "crazy graphics screen" safe mode, it eventually displayed the following error message:

Product: Windows.
Problem: Video hardware error.

Description: A problem with your video hardware caused Windows to stop working correctly.

Problem signature:
Problem Event Name: LiveKernelEvent.
OS Version: 6.0.6000.
Locale ID: 1033.
Files that help describe the problem: WD-20090214-0940.dmp, sysdata.xml, Version.txt

Although the SZ series hasn't been recalled like the Sony VAIO TZ models, it has been running awfully hot lately... And it has contributed to the delay in finishing things (like Encephalon) in a timely fashion.

So please stay tuned!

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Encephalon #64 Forthcoming

Today is the President's Day holiday in the US, so there will be some delay in publication of Encephalon. Stayed tuned, it will be up tomorrow.

The Neurocritic thanks you for your patience. In the meantime, Channel N offered me the link to this short video on Abraham Lincoln's battle with depression, produced by John McManamy. For more background, read the detailed biography Lincoln's Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk.

Enjoy the video.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Everybody Loves Encephalon! You WILL Submit by Feb. 15

The 64th edition of the Encephalon Blog Carnival will be hosted by The Neurocritic on February 16, 2009.

Please send your submissions to, --at-- gmail --dot-- com

by February 15.


Charles Darwin

12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882

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Selection Bias in Online Polls: Twitter vs. Cognitive Daily

There was an uproarious SmackDown on Twitter between @brucewagner and @davemunger over the issue of polling the percentage of gay/homosexual tweeters/blog readers.

You see, there's this small issue called selection bias that prevents reputable pollsters from asking a question in this way: How gay is Twitter? ;) Are you gay?
selection bias

Selection bias comes in two flavors: (1) self-selection of individuals to participate in an activity or survey, or as a subject in an experimental study; (2) selection of samples or studies by researchers to support a particular hypothesis.

Was Bruce actually serious that his Are you gay? poll was completely unbiased?

Yes, that's right, only 54% of all Twitterers self-identified as straight in this fabulous poll, with 28% calling themselves gay and the rest in between. Off just a little?

Sexual Behavior and Selected Health Measures: Men and Women 15-44 Years of Age, United States, 2002

Sexual orientation

In response to a question that asked, “Do you think of yourself as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or something else?” 90 percent of men 18-44 years of age responded that they think of themselves as heterosexual, 2.3 percent of men answered homosexual, 1.8 percent bisexual, 3.9 percent “something else,” and 1.8 percent did not answer the question. Percents for women were similar.

[See Alkaline Earth for more.]

Given the wildly inaccurate Twitter numbers, Dave Munger wanted to prove a point by posting his own Are you homosexual? poll to the readers of Cognitive Daily.

He then compared these results to an earlier "Casual Friday" poll, which embedded a query about same- vs. opposite-sex partners in a series of questions about romantic gifts:
Selection bias and homosexuality

A couple hours ago I posted a quick poll, in what might be construed as an unbiased fashion. I simply asked respondents for their sexual orientation, offering a wide array of choices ranging from "straight" to "mostly gay" to "gay" to "other."

In fact, my poll was biased -- not because the question itself was slanted, but because of the way respondents were recruited: I titled the post "Are you homosexual?" Potential respondents who are homosexual or who don't have traditional sexual preferences are more likely to be interested in the question, and therefore more likely to respond. How do I know this biased the sample? Because I collected similar data last week in the Casual Fridays survey about romantic gifts. In that survey, women reported same-gender partners 5.7 percent of the time, and men reported same-gender partners 3.7 percent of the time.

However, some commenters noted that the Romantic Gift poll was not free of bias, either. Heterosexual partnered individuals were perhaps more likely to answer questions on whether jewelry, perfume, chocolate, flowers, lingerie, etc. constituted romantic gifts or not.

The moral of the story?

Do not give sexy nightwear or sex toys to women on the first date...

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Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Prize Winning Encephalon of Urbana-Champaign, Illinois

Better late than never, Of Two Minds hosts Encephalon.... the late prize winning February edition. Watch as Steve becomes obsessed with money, blows some lines of sugar, and throws like a girl, then turns to serotonin, brain doping, and dysfunctional family therapy to boost his blogging sweat.

Speaking of blogging, the next edition of Encephalon will be hosted by The Neurocritic on February 16.

Please send your submissions to, --at-- gmail --dot-- com

by February 15.

SharpBrains has more information on the Encephalon Blog Carnival.

Julianne Moore in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

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Monday, February 02, 2009


Well well wealth...and health. In case you haven't heard, HealthCentral has acquired Wellsphere.

HealthCentral Acquires Wellsphere Creating the Largest Organically Driven Online Health and Wellness Communities

Deal Adds Nearly Four Million Unique Visitors per Month to HealthCentral Reach

Arlington, VA / San Mateo, CA (January 28, 2009)HealthCentral, the leading collection of online condition-specific consumer health and wellness experiences, today announced the acquisition of Wellsphere, a leading health technology company, adding nearly 4 million monthly unique visitors to HealthCentral’s audience. The acquisition combines HealthCentral’s high-quality, condition-specific interactive experiences, content and audience with Wellsphere’s aggregation of over 1,500 health and wellness bloggers and unique Health Knowledge Engine™ technology that deciphers highly specific health information. HealthCentral also will leverage Wellsphere’s health community enterprise technology which powers Stanford University’s BeWell@Stanford site to deliver valuable health information and wellness tools for Stanford employees. The deal raises HealthCentral’s audience of its owned properties to ten million unique visitors per month, and makes the company the largest organic aggregation of online health and wellness communities.
Wellsphere was well-known for its obsequious and persistent recruiting tactics that convinced many naïve individuals to join its "network of the web's leading health bloggers." Dr. Geoffrey Rutledge, the Chief Medical Information Officer, used direct e-mail pitches and flattery to gain access to free content from over 1800 blogs, as reported by Helen Jaques in this recent post:
Health bloggers bite back as Wellsphere sells on posts provided for free

. . .

Dr Geoffrey Rutledge, Chief Medical Information Officer of Wellsphere, generated content for his site by sending flattering emails to thousands of medicine and health bloggers (sample text “I want to tell you I think your writing is great”, “we are building a network of the web’s leading health bloggers - and I think you would be a great addition”). Bloggers gave Wellsphere permission to publish the entire RSS feed of their site, i.e. posts they had already written, in return for exposure for their blog and more traffic.

However, the small print of Wellsphere’s terms and conditions states that by giving Wellsphere permission to reproduce their posts, bloggers automatically grant the company “a royalty-free, paid-up, non-exclusive, worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual license to use, make, sell, offer to sell, have made, and further sublicense any such User Materials[.]” (Thanks to Symtym for checking this out)

Bloggers who allowed Wellsphere to replicate their posts have suddenly realised that content they happily provided free is no longer theirs and has been sold off to HealthCentral for a profit, and boy are they mad.
However, many bloggers were skeptics from the beginning, including The Neurocritic:
What's With All This Scamming for Free Content?

A number of fellow bloggers and friends have recently received appeals from seemingly unscrupulous individuals at for-profit startups and more established websites "to join their rapidly growing network of bloggers." In other words, they are trying to recruit bloggers to provide free content for their companies so the owners can make a profit.

. . .

Wellsphere, eh? You don't have to dig very far to find the dirt on that company. Let's start with Valleywag (Silicon Valley's Tech Gossip Rag) and a post titled Failure (from Tue Jul 31 2007):
Wellsphere, an Internet-health startup, gets the velvet-glove treatment from TechCrunch — and a savage expose from Uncov [summarized here]. An ex-employee emails Valleywag to add this about Wellsphere CEO Ron Gutman: "The most despicable human being I've ever come into contact with."
Sandra from Channel N was the one who alerted me to Dr. Geoff's obnoxious recruiting campaign (and to this amusing post from Jeanne Sather, The Assertive Cancer Patient):
Wellsphere: Use the Content of My Blog for Free? (I Don't Think So ...)

Every so often, I get an e-mail from someone who is starting up a new Web site and wants to use the content of my blog, for free.

I'm always pretty amazed by these folks--they want to use my blog, which I've spent countless hours writing, and not compensate me for it. This is my intellectual property, after all. It's how I make my living.

Their pitch usually includes something about how MY blog will benefit from the wider readership of THEIR Web site, but in fact, the reverse is probably true: Their Web site would benefit from having my content.

So I always say no, but, just for fun, I always tell them first that I'm willing to discuss it if they are willing to pay. I think a retainer of $3,000 a month is about right for the use of any and all content on my blog.
Even if you politely declined their initial invitation (as Sandra and many others did)...
Date: Wed, Jul 30, 2008
Subject: Re: Invitation to feature your blog on Wellsphere
To: Dr. Geoffrey W. Rutledge MD, PhD

Hi Geoffrey,

I am glad to see that Wellsphere is asking bloggers for their consent before reaggregating them (some sites don't). But no, you can't have my content for free.

Thanks anyway. :)

...resistance was futile! The opening pitch was followed by at least 6 more e-mails from Dr. Geoffrey Rutledge MD, PhD offering "awards" and honors (and widgets) unless you opted out by unsubscribing to the updates.
Date: Tue, Sep 23, 2008
Subject: Useful, free widget, and a link to your blog

Date: Mon, Oct 13, 2008
Subject: Boost your online reputation, increase your visibility!

Date: Sat, Oct 18, 2008
Subject: (Video due Sunday 10/19) YOU ARE OUR HERO - Be Part of History

Date: Fri, Oct 24, 2008
Subject: Yes We Care! Campaign honors you as our "Everyday Hero"

Date: Mon, Nov 17, 2008
Subject: Invitation to become a Health Maven and reach 100,000 Health Seekers every day

Date: Wed, Dec 17, 2008
Subject: Enter the People's Health Blogger Awards today - you can WIN!
The funny thing is, the invitations were sent almost indiscriminately, even to the obvious cynics. Much hilarity ensued.
At September 25, 2008 11:19 PM, Geoffrey W. Rutledge, MD, PhD said...

I think your blog is terrific, and I would like to feature you on Wellsphere ( Would you drop me an email?
Good health!
Geoffrey W. Rutledge, MD, PhD

At September 25, 2008 11:47 PM, The Neurocritic said...

Thanks for the compliment, Dr. Geoff. You must have read one of my other terrific posts, What's With All This Scamming for Free Content?

Sock puppets frequented the comments sections of other critical bloggers, including those with varying ideologies. Particularly laughable is this exchange at Different Thoughts, because the author (Marian) is opposed to biological psychiatry, an agenda she considers rather incompatible with joining Wellsphere. It looks like Dr. Rutledge (and "Bill") are the ones who did not do their homework:

Bill said...

To those that have commented on the Wellsphere should really visit the site, look at what they are trying to do, and investigate the author of the email - Dr. Rutledge. I did and found something quite different....a doctor who has worked clinically, has a PhD from Stanford (in technology), was a medical faculty member at Stanford and Harvard, and built the initial consumer web portal for WebMD. These are impressive credentials.

It seems obvious that Wellsphere is trying to build content and they are soliciting bloggers. Bloggers can evaluate the offer and decide accordingly what they want to do but there are clear advantages to the blogger by joining Wellsphere and offering their content for free. Bloggers may not want to follow that path for their own good reasons but to label Wellsphere in a negative light seems inappropriate.

It is good to be cynical...but first do your homework before you assume the worst...

Marian said...

Bill, as for me, I've been there, and I've seen "what they're trying to do"... And you bet, I've investigated Dr. Rutledge - and others at Wellsphere. I'm not impressed. Actually, I found quite a number of far less polite and "flattering" statements about Wellsphere at various blogs and in comments - some of them by former employees of Wellsphere - than the one I chose to link to in my post. In principle, I don't join anything, I have the least doubt about. And I must admit, that I have a lot more than "the least" doubt about Wellsphere.

Bill said...

. . .

@ Marian - I am always skeptical about ex-employees who say negative things about a previous employer in a public environment. They more often than not have an axe to grind and in my experience are less than credible.

As to not being impressed by Dr. Rutledge? I did a little online research...Who does impress you? How many doctors do you know have a PhD in Computer Science from Stanford, who has been extensively published, and who has been on faculty at two of the most highly regarded academic institutions in the world (Harvard and Stanford)...and built the first version of the free consumer web based medical portal for WebMD. Hmmm, seems impressive to me...

A lot of people have written about #wellsphere; the links below provide a sample. Feel free to add more to the comments.

How The Health Blogosphere Was Scammed

All’s Not Well Sphere

About that whole Wellsphere debacle...

Will Health Bloggers Foil the Acquisition of Wellsphere by HealthCentral?

My Wellsphere saga and the recent acquisition

Wellsphere and Medical Blogosphere Collide

Health Central Buys Wellsphere: Let the Exploitation Begin!

Phone Conversation - an Overview

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