Thursday, October 31, 2013

Marie Laveau Conjures a Horde of Avenging Zombies

In American Horror Story: Coven, New Orleans Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau casts a spell to avenge the brutal lynching of an African American high school boy in 1961. She's calling up the undead.

The zombie resurrection starts with one hand poking through the dirt, followed by the slow but steady emergence of a marauding horde. This may not be an entirely accurate scenario, however, since most cemeteries in New Orleans are above ground. The stone crypts and mausoleums are tourist attractions, with Marie Laveau's tomb being a particular favorite.

The four white racists try in vain to dispense with the intruders, to no avail. Silly rednecks! Don't you know that guns are useless against zombies? They'll just tear you limb from limb. It's a bloody awesome scene!

Marie Laveau is played by the fabulous Angela Bassett.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Image credits. Left: SUBNETS program (DARPA). Right: BRAIN interim report presentation (NIH).

In April, the White House announced the $100 million Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. The goals of this bold new research effort are to "revolutionize our understanding of the human mind and uncover new ways to treat, prevent, and cure brain disorders like Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury." A series of high-profile journal articles traced the genesis of this initiative from the Brain Activity Map idea to develop nanotechnologies and "image every spike from every neuron" (Alivisatos et al., 2012) to its current emphasis on neural circuits and systems neuroscience more broadly construed (Insel et al., 2013). In the first year (FY 2014),1 $50 million will be allocated to DARPA and $40 million to NIH.2

The two federal agencies have taken starkly different approaches to the challenge, in terms of timing and scope. They also address different levels of nervous system function. Both are ambitious, but one surpasses earlier calls for a "moon shot" to the mind.  IF successful,3 it would render much of pre-clinical neuroscience research quaint and obsolete (except for providing mechanistic details).

The Tale of Two BRAINS

1. The National Institute of Health (NIH) sponsored a series of meetings and solicited public feedback. The NIH Director's BRAIN Advisory Committee issued its Interim Report (PDF) on September 16. The report focuses primarily on animal models, including improved technologies for recording neuronal activity and manipulating circuit function.4 Here are the high-priority research areas for FY 2014:
#1.  Generate a Census of Cell Types.
#2.  Create Structural Maps of the Brain. 
#3.  Develop New Large-Scale Network Recording Capabilities.
#4.  Develop A Suite of Tools for Circuit Manipulation.
#5.  Link Neuronal Activity to Behavior.
#6.  Integrate Theory, Modeling, Statistics, and Computation with Experimentation.  
#7.  Delineate Mechanisms Underlying Human Imaging Technologies.
#8.  Create Mechanisms to Enable Collection of Human Data.
#9.  Disseminate Knowledge and Training.
These are very ambitious projects, each delineated in more detail in the full report (PDF). However, the NIH has yet to issue a Request for Applications that outlines the requirements for grant proposals submitted through this program.

2. On the other hand, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced their goals for the BRAIN Initiative via the New York Times on October 24 and and issued a broad agency announcement (call for proposals) on October 25. The focus is on developing technologies and treatments that use deep brain stimulation (DBS), which has been highly successful in Parkinson's Disease.

There are 3 Technical Areas that are covered in the announcement. All applicants must address Area One, and teams of investigators are encouraged to address all three.
TA One is comprised of clinical trials in order to establish mechanistic models of awake, behaving human brain activity.

TA Two encompasses the hardware development component in order to create safe and effective sensing and stimulation systems.

In TA Three, investigators will use human-relevant animal models [primates, not rodents] to generate safety and efficacy data as well as establish preliminary theories and rapidly prototype hypotheses regarding the links between neural data and clinical outcomes. 
To elaborate, over a 5 year period, the successful applicants must conduct clinical trials in human patients with 7 specified psychiatric and neurological disorders (not including PD), some of which have never been treated with DBS. The successful teams will use devices that both stimulate and record neural activity, and provide real-time data that can be decoded as reflecting a particular behavioral state... basically, a futuristic implant that can adjust its own stimulation parameters based on how the patient is doing. At least, that's how I interpret it.

Brainstorm (1983). Brain-computer interfaces have improved a bit in the last 30 yrs.

Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS)

Let's take a closer look at TA One of DARPA's SUBNETS program.
SUBNETS is distinct from current therapeutic approaches as it seeks to develop the ability to create a closed-loop diagnostic and therapeutic system. Through measuring pathways involved in complex systems-based brain disorders such as depression, compulsion, debilitating impulse control, and chronic pain, SUBNETS will attempt to establish the capability to record and model how these systems function in both normal conditions, among volunteers seeking treatment for unrelated neurologic disorders, as well as impaired clinical research participants. SUBNETS will then use these models to determine appropriate therapeutic stimulation methodologies that meet guidelines for both safety and efficacy in human participants. These models will be adapted onto next-generation, closed-loop neural stimulators that exceed currently developed capacities for simultaneous stimulation and recording and provide a research investigator, a clinician, and a human research participant with the ability to record, analyze, and stimulate multiple brain regions for therapeutic purposes.

Seven disorders are targeted: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Major Depression, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Substance Abuse/Addiction, and Fibromyalgia/Chronic Pain. To the best of my knowledge, there is no published literature on DBS for PTSD, BPD, GAD [as opposed to OCD], or TBI [except for minimally conscious state]. At, a Pilot Study of DBS of the Amygdala for Treatment-Refractory Combat PTSD was withdrawn prior to enrollment. There's one DBS trial for TBI that aims to enroll 5 patients over a 4 year period. I couldn't find anything for BPD or GAD (although these disorders might possibly be comorbid in some patients treated for depression or OCD).

With this starting point in mind...
All proposers must address each of the conditions described above by the end of Phase Two of this program. If, through the course of Phase One, a given condition is demonstrated to not be amenable to modeling and intervention as described in this BAA, performers will be allowed to describe an alternative condition.

Here are the milestones for Phase One (24 months):
  • Generate models for two DSM diagnosis categories chosen from: (A) Major Depression, (B) PTSD, (C) General Anxiety Disorder, (D) Borderline Personality Disorder.
  • Generate models for one disrupted neurologic of physiologic system chosen from: (A) Fibromyalgia/Chronic Pain, (B) TBI, (C) Substance Abuse/Addiction.
  • Demonstrate ability to intraoperatively relieve symptom severity with computer in the loop (measured through neural signature of disease as well as phenotypic presentation).
  • Evaluate the effects of intraoperative stimulation on symptomology at four hours, 24 hours, and 72 hours through neural recordings and behavioral experiments.

For Phase Two (36 months):
  • Refine models from Phase One.
  • Generate models for remaining two DSM diagnosis categories and two neurological/physiological systems.
  • Demonstrate ability to intraoperatively relieve symptom severity with device in the loop (measured through neural signature of disease as well as phenotypic presentation).
  • Demonstrate ability to chronically relieve symptom severity over 14 day window.
  • Demonstrate ability to provide therapy in response to stimuli in free-living environment.

So perhaps every major DBS center (e.g., Emory, University of Toronto, UCLA, Oxford, Brown, Butler, Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Clinic, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Bonn, Magdeburg, Amsterdam, etc.) can work together to develop appropriate models for all the disorders and choose precise target locations. Then they'd need to collaborate with the brain decoding crowd, BCI developers, and William Gibson.


1 Stanford professor and working group co-chair Bill Newsome said:
"The government shutdown will very definitely affect BRAIN--will bring it to a complete halt in fact. To write good proposals, to get them evaluated, to get the money committed for this next year flowing, that’s a long process--even with the NIH process moving at warp speed, it takes the better part of a year. We on the working group, we delivered our end of the bargain. NIH wants to deliver on its end of the bargain, but they simply can’t do it if they’re sitting at home on an unwanted furlough."

2 Plus $20 million to NSF (Samuel et al., 2013) and over $120 million from private foundations.

3 I hate to be a wet blanket, but don't see how the entire DBS research community could achieve some of the Phase 2 goals within 5 years. I'm not alone in this. Dr. Helen Mayberg, one of the researchers most qualified to submit a proposal to DARPA, said:
“Is it overambitious? Of course,” said Dr. Mayberg, adding that working with the brain is “a slow process.” But she said that it was an impressive first investment and that the clear emphasis on human illness was “stunning.”

4 One section of the report mentions Devices for Monitoring and Stimulating the Human Brain, but mostly in the context of recruiting patients as research participants (not in developing technologies or treatments... which is covered by DARPA).

Further Reading

Agency Initiative Will Focus on Advancing Deep Brain Stimulation

BRAIN Initiative Interim Report: A Readers Guide

BRAIN Initiative Links at Empirical Planet

BAM and BRAINI links at Nucleus Ambiguous

From BAM to The BRAIN Initiative: A clearer view of a major neuroscience enterprise

Neuroscience thinks big (and collaboratively).

Scientific priorities for the BRAIN Initiative.

The challenge of connecting the dots in the B.R.A.I.N.


Alivisatos AP, Chun M, Church GM, Greenspan RJ, Roukes ML, & Yuste R (2012). The brain activity map project and the challenge of functional connectomics. Neuron, 74 (6), 970-4 PMID: 22726828

Insel TR, Landis SC, & Collins FS (2013). Research priorities. The NIH BRAIN Initiative. Science, 340 (6133), 687-8 PMID: 23661744

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Friday, October 25, 2013

DARPA allocates $70 million for improving deep brain stimulation technology

In what appears to be an exclusive story, the New York Times has reported that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will spend $70 million over the next 5 years to further develop and improve deep brain stimulation (DBS) techniques. This funding is part of President Obama's BRAIN Initiative.

Agency Initiative Will Focus on Advancing Deep Brain Stimulation

Published: October 24, 2013
. . .

The federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as Darpa, announced Thursday that it intended to spend more than $70 million over five years to jump to the next level of brain implants, either by improving deep brain stimulation or by developing new technology.

Justin Sanchez, Darpa program manager, said that for scientists now, “there is no technology that can acquire signals that can tell them precisely what is going on with the brain.”

And so, he said, Darpa is “trying to change the game on how we approach these kinds of problems.”

The new program, called Systems-Based Neurotechnology and Understanding for the Treatment of Neuropsychological Illnesses, is part of an Obama administration brain initiative, announced earlier this year, intended to promote innovative basic neuroscience. Participants in the initiative include Darpa, as well as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

The announcement of Darpa’s goal is the first indication of how that research agency will participate in the initiative. The money is expected to be divided among different teams, and research proposals are now being sought.

I couldn't find a news announcement on DARPA's website or a request for research proposals. The program hasn't even been mentioned in their Twitter feed!


On the other hand, the NIH Director's BRAIN Advisory Committee issued its Interim Report (PDF) on September 16. The report is focused primarily on animal models, including improved technologies for recording neuronal activity and manipulating circuit function. Section 6d mentions Devices for Monitoring and Stimulating the Human Brain, but mostly in the context of recruiting patients as research participants.1

DARPA tends to fund, shall we say, very ambitious (and unorthodox) research projects. For BRAIN, they want to develop a device that can monitor and detect the symptoms of a psychiatric illness, deliver appropriate DBS, and record neural activity to determine whether the treatment was successful.2 The article continues:
Darpa’s goal would require solving several longstanding problems in neuroscience, one of which is to develop a detailed model of how injuries or illnesses like depression manifest themselves in the systems of the brain.

The next step is to create a device that can monitor the signs of illness or injury in real time, treat them appropriately and measure the effects of the treatment. The result would be something like a highly sophisticated pacemaker for a brain disorder.

Darpa is asking for research teams to produce a device ready to be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for approval within five years.

“Is it overambitious? Of course,” said Dr. Mayberg, adding that working with the brain is “a slow process.” But she said that it was an impressive first investment and that the clear emphasis on human illness was “stunning.”

The driving force of the research program is to improve treatments for combat veterans who suffer from mental and physical conditions. These are pressing needs for DARPA, problems that warrant immediate solutions. This is one government agency that doesn't want to wait around for “a slow process” to yield results...

ADDENDUM: For more information, read A Tale of Two BRAINS: #BRAINI and DARPA's SUBNETS


1 Oddly, the NYT article says NIH "has not decided on its emphasis, appears to be aiming for basic research, based on the recommendations from a working committee advising the agency." I thought the 58 page report provided detail on NIH's emphasis.

2 Perhaps they would also like a device to predict (and prevent) criminal offending, like in this rough sketch:
Is it possible for a brain scan to predict whether a recently paroled inmate will commit another crime within 4 years? A new study by Aharoni et al. (2013) suggests that the level of activity within the anterior cingulate cortex might provide a clue to whether a given offender will be rearrested.

Dress this up a bit and combine with a miniaturized brain-computer interface that continuously uploads EEG activity to the data center at a maximum security prison. There, machine learning algorithms determine with high accuracy whether a given pattern of neural oscillations signals the imminent intent to reoffend that will trigger deep brain stimulation in customized regions of prefrontal cortex, and you have the plot for a 1990s cyberpunk novel.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Blurred Lines: The Science Blogosphere and the Borasphere

Hey, hey, hey

                      Hey, hey, hey

                             Blurred Lines
                                     ------Robin Thicke

full size image at ScienceBloggingHR.jpg
One depiction of the science blogosphere (~2010), by Brian Reid

This is a post about the neuroscience blogosphere. It exists as a loose entity separate from the infographic above. Oh, there are a few stray overlaps here and there. But not many.

I was initially going to call this post Parallel Lines.

The story is subjective. It's told from one point of view. Mostly mine. So it's the perspective of a blogger who is a scientist. Not a science writer. Not exactly a "science communicator" either. Not part of a blog network. One who has never attended ScienceOnline. Therein lies the rub, the reason my ilk don't exist on infographics.

The Science Blogosphere

Other stories, many sad and angering and tragic tales, should really take precedence now. Stories of blurred lines and clearly crossed lines. Recent instances of censorship and harassment have deeply affected that parallel community, the one that dominates the discourse on science blogging. The reverberations have been felt far and wide. Perhaps the ongoing conversations about racism and sexism and sexual harassment and abuse of power will lead to positive lasting changes.

Time will tell.

graphic from the Journal of Feelsynapsis

The Borasphere

Bora Zivkovic was an incredibly influential, powerful, and prolific presence in the science blogging world, especially in the US. He was the community manager for the Scientific American Blog Network. He built it nearly from scratch. He encouraged and promoted a large number of young talented writers (most of whom were women).1 He was a manager / organizer of the ScienceOnline conference, the Open Laboratory anthologies, and the ScienceSeeker website.

He was known as The Blogfather. In 2010, he described the Changing Science Blogging Ecosystem in 8,247 words (mostly in terms of the ScienceBlogs network). In 2012 he went further and got to define what a science blog is and to write their history (6,868 words).

Many people came to confuse the Borasphere with the totality of the Science Blogosphere. Blogs that fell outside his sphere of influence barely existed. Should any one person be this powerful?

Blurred Lines

The Bora story above uses past tense verbs because everything changed October 16 to October 18.  Bora was forced to resign his positions when detailed accounts of sexual harassment came to light. While he devoted years to the cause and contributed many great things to science blogging at large, his legacy is tainted by these inappropriate violations of trust.

There is another tale that has not been told. It is not mine to tell. It exists in the realm of sheer speculation and might be better left unsaid.

Here's where the neuro/psych blogging comes in.

Laura Helmuth is the only person who's hinted at it publicly (that I know of), in her excellent piece at Slate:
At the most reprehensible end of the spectrum of possible explanations, Zivkovic is a predator who surrounded himself with inexperienced women because he considered them easy prey. Or perhaps he has some mental health problems with impulse control.  

Some of his behavior might be consistent with bipolar disorder, with mania/hypomania in particular. Bora was a chronobiologist who studied circadian rhythms in animals. He was also extremely knowledgeable about Lithium, Circadian Clocks and Bipolar Disorder and wrote lengthy posts on the topic. He was very prolific and energetic. Blog Around the Clock has an obvious double meaning.

If true, this DOES NOT excuse his behavior, but it may provide a possible explanation. You see, hypersexuality is a common symptom in those experiencing a hypomanic episode:

B. During the period of mood disturbance, three (or more) of the following symptoms have persisted (four if the mood is only irritable) and have been present to a significant degree: 
(1) inflated self-esteem or grandiosity
(2) decreased need for sleep (e.g., feels rested after only 3 hours of sleep)
(3) more talkative than usual or pressure to keep talking
(4) flight of ideas or subjective experience that thoughts are racing
(5) distractibility (i.e., attention too easily drawn to unimportant or irrelevant external stimuli)
(6) increase in goal-directed activity (either socially, at work or school, or sexually) or psychomotor agitation
(7) excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences (e.g., the person engages in unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions, or foolish business investments)

The Neuroscience Blogosphere

On October 14, Adam J Calhoun wrote a provocative post asking Why is there no neuroscience blogosphere?
Obviously, there are tons of great neuroscience blogs out there – I’m not even going to try to list them because they are numerous and I don’t want to accidentally leave one out. But there does not seem to be a blogosphere. To get all middle school on you, Wikipedia defines the blogosphere as the collection of all blogs and their interconnections, implying that they exist as a connected community.

When I look around at the Economics blogosphere, I see a lot of give-and-take between blogs. One blog will post an idea, another blog will comment on it, and the collective community has a discussion. I see this discussion, to a greater or lesser extent, in the other communities I follow: math, physics, and ecology. Yet missing in all this is neuroscience, and perhaps biology in general. Why is this?

. . .

Are biologists just less interested in discussing broad ideas? I wouldn’t think so, but I don’t see any equivalent to, say, Dynamic Ecology, where discussions on neuroscience ideas big and small can kick off. I think the closest we get is the Neuroskeptic/critic axis.

Well, I was very flattered indeed to be part of the axis of evil...

One thing I've tried to do in my many years of neuroblogging is to provide a loose sense of community by the mere aggregation of independent, non-network neuroscience and psychology blogs. The impetus for this was the rise in number, prominence, and clout of the blogging networks in 2010, and a definition of science blogging that excluded our voices. We're in the @neuroghetto, folks. This alternate history is recounted in Independent Neuroblogs as part of the science blogging ecosystem.

Obviously, many excellent network-based blogs have long been part of Adam's neuroscience blogosphere too, and some of these straddle multiple worlds.2  I'm not here to be exclusionary.

In general, I’d rather be critiquing the latest faux pas in neuro/psych research then blathering on about the current state of the blogosphere (i.e., blogging about blogging).3 But with all these recent events I felt like my head was going to explode.  I wish everyone well.


1 This caused #RipplesOfDoubt.

2 Foremost among them (in my mind) is Scicurious, who was an early protégé of Bora. In fact, I waited for her thoughtful response to the scandal before posting anything myself. Very insightful commening as well; this comment by Razib Khan was especially notable.

3 There’s nothing inherently wrong in blogging about blogging, but it’s usually not my thing.

                                              Hey, hey, hey

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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Should a book chapter be republished as a peer-reviewed article with no attribution?

UPDATE (10/23/2013): The authors have commented to offer their explanation for the omitted attribution.

An entire book chapter from a popular science trade book has been published as an "Original Research Article" in Frontiers in Psychiatry. The article appears as part of a Research Topic on Alternative Models of Addiction in Frontiers in Addictive Disorders and Behavioral Dyscontrol, a specialty section within Frontiers in Psychiatry.

I downloaded the provisional PDF and was initially tipped off by the curious citation style and copious use of footnotes, unlike the standard reference list seen in journal articles (e.g., APA format). I looked for a mention of the published book but could not find it anywhere. Perhaps this will be corrected in later editions of the article (if any).

The book is copyrighted (see below), but the nearly identical article is covered by a Creative Commons agreement, which states that the open-access text can be freely cited with attribution.

- click on images to enlarge -

Here's the Introduction, which is identical to Chapter 3 of the book (see above image).

But here's an abstract that might be unique to the Frontiers article (Satel & Lillienfeld, 2013):
The notion that addiction is a ''brain disease'' has become widespread and rarely challenged.The brain disease model implies erroneously that the brain is necessarily the most important and useful level of analysis for understanding and treating addiction. This paper will explain the limits of over-medicalizing -- while acknowledging a legitimate place for medication in the therapeutic repertoire -- and why a broader perspective on the problems of the addicted person is essential to understanding addiction and to providing optimal care. In short, the brain disease model obscures the dimension of choice in addiction, the capacity to respond to incentives, and also the essential fact people use drugs for reasons (as consistent with a self-medication hypothesis). The latter becomes obvious when patients become abstinent yet still struggle to assume rewarding lives in the realm of work and relationships. Thankfully, addicts can choose to recover and are not helpless victims of their own ''hijacked brains.''

Below is page 6 of the Provisional PDF.

Compare to pages 51 and 52 of the book.

Chapter 3, page 51

Chapter 3, page 52

This is such an egregious violation that I suspect it must be some sort of a mistake. I've had my differences of opinion with the book's authors,1 but I don't want to be seen as harboring animus to discredit them.2 Which is why I'm not repeatedly calling them out by name in the post (though it's obvious who they are). I do feel somewhat bad about the whole situation, and will post an addendum to clear up any misunderstandings, or any subterfuge by an unknown third party. I've contacted the journal editor, and will keep you posted.


1 I do agree with some parts of the book's agenda (and in fact the authors include Mind Hacks, Neuroskeptic, and The Neurocritic in their Acknowledgments -- which is good, since many of their examples are from our blogs). But I disagree in particular with their idea that shaming addicts is helpful (and also with their stance on property dualism). See these posts:

The Destructive Power of Shame


All Washed Up

Finding Middle Ground on Neuroscience, by Daniel Lende

Book Review: Brainwashed, by Neuroskeptic

2 Full disclosure: I also know that the first author is affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank ideologically opposed to my political beliefs.


Satel S, Lilienfeld SO (2013). Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. Basic Books.

Satel S, Lilienfeld SO (2013). Addiction and the Brain-Disease Fallacy. Frontiers in Addictive Disorders and Behavioral Dyscontrol.  doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00141

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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Existential Neuroscience: a field in search of meaning

What separates prior from subsequent is exactly nothing. This nothing is absolutely impassable, just because it is nothing...

Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (p. 28).

If you read the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (SCAN), you might think that Existential Neuroscience is a hot new field, since three recent papers on the topic have been published there. Can it provide profound new insights into the human condition? From what I can tell, these references to a formal discipline of “Existential Neuroscience” are based entirely on terror management theory, which was developed by Greenberg and colleagues in the 1980s (Greenberg et al., 1986; Rosenblatt et al., 1989). How does this relate to existentialism?

Existence precedes essence (Sartre, 1946).

But first, what is Existentialism? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is reluctant to admit that it's an actual philosophy, rather than a literary or artistic trend:
By the mid 1970s the cultural image of existentialism had become a cliché, parodized in countless books and films by Woody Allen. It is sometimes suggested, therefore, that existentialism just is this bygone cultural movement rather than an identifiable philosophical position; or, alternatively, that the term should be restricted to Sartre's philosophy alone.

Stanford Encyclopedia eventually tells us that the most distinctive aspect of existentialism is that standard notions of identity are wrong:
The fundamental contribution of existential thought lies in the idea that one's identity is constituted neither by nature nor by culture, since to “exist” is precisely to constitute such an identity. It is in light of this idea that key existential notions such as facticity, transcendence (project), alienation, and authenticity must be understood.

The first known account of Existential Neuroscience (EN) was written by mirror neuron researcher Dr. Marco Iacoboni in 2006 (PDF).1 It was published as a book chapter in Social Neuroscience: Integrating Biological and Psychological Explanations of Social Behavior (Harmon-Jones & Winkielman, 2007). Thus, EN appears to be a branch of Social Neuroscience.

But what is Existential Neuroscience, exactly? A group of French intellectuals discussing brain research in a cafe while smoking and sipping espresso? An authentic neuroscience of utter freedom that embraces a state of perpetual despair2 over the meaninglessness of existence? Or independent groups of German-speaking neuroscientists who scan subjects while they ponder death?

Sartre and Friends

If you guessed the latter, you'd be correct.  More precisely, EN thus far consists of neuroimaging studies of mortality salience, as you might expect by its reliance on terror management theory (TMT).3  Therefore, EN should be called “Fear of Death” Neuroscience. TMT holds that when people are confronted with their own mortality, they respond in ways to boost their self-esteem, reinforce their own values, and punish outsiders.

In an ironic twist for the existentialist neuroscientists, however, Existentialism rejects science as means of understanding what it is to be human. Here's Sartre on the futility of science:
From the outset physiology is condemned to understand nothing of life since it conceives life simply as a particular modality of death, since it sees the infinite divisibility of the corpse as primary, and since it does not know the synthetic unity of the "surpassing towards" for which infinite divisibility is the pure and simple past. Even the study of life in the living person, even vivisection, even the study of the life of protoplasm, even embryology or the study of the egg can not rediscover life; the organ which is observed is living, but it is not established in the synthetic unity of a particular life; it is understood in terms of anatomyi.e., in terms of death.

-Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (p. 348).

Even if one is a firm believer in the potential of neuroscience to lead to better treatments for mental illness, it's hard to envision what brain research can tell us about a philosophical system opposed to science (or most other philosophies, for that matter). Can we imagine what a Taoist Neuroscience or an Epicurean Neuroscience would be like? Not to mention the prospect of a Nihilist Neuroscience or a Post-Structural Neuroscience...

By necessity, a true Existential Neuroscience must deal with human beings as the focus of study, since the withdrawal reflex of Aplysia might not be a valid model of existential angst. It's unlikely we'll see circuit models and optogenetic studies of the alienated self any time soon. As currently formulated, EN has more concrete goal: to study one specific element of existentialist thought that might be more closely related to Heidegger's views (see Quirin et al., 2012).

This leads us to the most recent of the EN studies in SCAN (Silveira et al., 2013), which I'll discuss in some detail. This study is based on a different reaction to mortality salience, one that is derived from evolutionary psychology: the drive to reproduce. The heterosexual participants in the study viewed attractive opposite-sex faces and made decisions about whether they would like to meet them (a proxy for sexual desire) after being primed by death-related words (or not). Already, this seems like a bridge too far, but let us go on.

Sixteen female and 16 male subjects participated in this fMRI experiment. They viewed a series of attractive faces (as judged by an independent group of participants) and decided, in separate blocks, if the faces were attractive or not (explicit evaluation) or whether they'd like to meet the person or not ("implicit" evaluation). The task was cued at the beginning of a block by the words Meet? or Attractive? Participants make their choice when the ? appears on the monitor. Below is an example of the implicit no-prime condition shown to the male subjects.

The participants viewed a blank screen before each face is presented, instead of viewing control words that are unrelated to death. The lack of such a control condition is problematic, as we'll see later. For comparison, an example of the death-prime condition is illustrated below.

modified from Fig 1 (Silveira et al., 2013). I added two English translations for the original German exemplars that were given in the text .

Here we can see the participants are reading words, a condition that entails a number of visual, lexical (e.g., decoding the letter string), and semantic (meaning-related) processes that are completely absent from the no-prime condition. Therefore, we can't know if any differential brain activation in the death-prime vs. no-prime conditions is caused by reading a word (any word) or by comprehending a specific reference to death, thereby triggering mortality salience.

To compound matters, the study used block design methodology, so the discrete hemodynamic responses to prime presentation or face presentation or the decision screen could not be determined, as in an event-related design. The figure below shows the death-prime vs. no-prime comparison for male participants (left) and female participants (right), who did not differ from each other.

Fig. 2 (Silveira et al., 2013). Increased neural activation when viewing attractive opposite-sex faces after death-related compared to no priming in (A) men and (B) women. lPFC = lateral prefrontal cortex.

The figure shows activation in the left anterior insula and adjacent inferior prefrontal cortex, which are known to be involved in language, particularly in coordinating speech (known as articulatory planning). Although such activity is usually associated with speaking aloud, left anterior insula activation has also been observed during silent reading. To reiterate, the present result may be due to the absence of any words in the no-priming condition. This interpretation is opposed to Silveira et al.'s claim that the activity "reflects an approach-motivated defense mechanism to overcome concerns that are induced by being reminded of death and dying."

Another wrinkle in the authors' world view is the fact that the death-priming manipulation increased interest in meeting an attractive member of the opposite sex only in males (76% vs. 68% in the no-prime condition) and not in females (47% vs. 48%). It's hard to know how the approach-motivated defense mechanism is operating in women, since it didn't increase their desire to meet potential [fictitious] partners.

It seems a stretch, then, to claim:
Thus insular activation suggests an increase in mating motivation under mortality salience. This interpretation is in accordance with previous findings that mortality salience motivates the formation of romantic relationships as well as reproductive desire.

Hardly. The female participants expressed no greater interest in even meeting potential partners (no less having babies with them), and yet their insular activations were highly similar to those seen in the male participants (who may or may not have shown greater reproductive desire, as this was not queried or investigated in any way).

In sum, I don't know if we've learned anything about existentialism, or sex and death, or even mortality salience and the left anterior insula.

C'est la guerre.

I emerge alone and in anguish confronting the unique and original project which constitutes my being; all the barriers, all the guard rails collapse, nihilated by the consciousness of my freedom. I do not have nor can I have recourse to any value against the fact that it is I who sustain values in being. Nothing can ensure me against myself, cut off from the world and from my essence by this nothingness which I am. I have to realize the meaning of the world and of my essence; I make my decision concerning themwithout justification and without excuse.

-Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (p. 39).


1 Iacoboni called EN a “Quiet Revolution” (that to me seems more like embodied cognition... which has not been quiet in announcing itself to the world):
In fact, some empirical work in the neuroscience of sociality seems to suggest - quietly, but resolutely - that the assumptions of the subject/world, inner/outer dichotomy, of representations independent of the things they represent, and of the atomism of the input may not be easily applied in some cases. Thus, rather than the picture of a meaning-giving brain that looks at the outside world and makes sense of it with a reflective and analytic approach, what emerges from some work in social cognitive neuroscience is the view of a human brain that needs a body to exist in a world of shared social norms in which meaning originates from being-in-the-world. This view is reminiscent of motives
recurring in at least one flavor of what is called existential phenomenology (Heidegger 1927). For this reason, I call this view existential neuroscience.

2 Despair:
What sets the existentialist notion of despair apart from the conventional definition is that existentialist despair is a state one is in even when he isn't overtly in despair. So long as a person's identity depends on qualities that can crumble, he is considered to be in perpetual despair. And as there is, in Sartrean terms, no human essence found in conventional reality on which to constitute the individual's sense of identity, despair is a universal human condition.

3 One might consider that Iacoboni's studies of existential mirror neurons fall under a different branch of EN; they're not cited by the "fear of death" faction and vice versa.


Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In R. F. Baumeister (Ed.), Public self and private self (pp. 189 –212). New York: Springer-Verlag.

Quirin M, Loktyushin A, Arndt J, Küstermann E, Lo YY, Kuhl J, & Eggert L (2012). Existential neuroscience: a functional magnetic resonance imaging investigation of neural responses to reminders of one's mortality. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 7 (2), 193-8. PMID: 21266462

Rosenblatt A, Greenberg J, Solomon S, Pyszczynski T, Lyon D. (1989). Evidence for terror management theory: I. The effects of mortality salience on reactions tothose who violate or uphold cultural values. J Pers Soc Psychol. 57(4):681-90.

Silveira S, Graupmann V, Agthe M, Gutyrchik E, Blautzik J, Demirçapa I, Berndt A, Pöppel E, Frey D, Reiser M, & Hennig-Fast K (2013). Existential neuroscience: Effects of mortality salience on the neurocognitive processing of attractive opposite-sex faces. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience PMID: 24078106

Jean-Paul Sartre, 1905–1980

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Saturday, October 05, 2013

Preschool Programs Informed by Basic Research in Neuroplasticity... in 1966

David P. Weikart

Krech (1960), Rosenzweig (1964), Bennett (1964), and others have successfully identified and measured physiological changes in the brain that relate directly to early experiences in carefully controlled studies with laboratory rats.

-Weikart (1966), Preschool Programs: Preliminary Findings

In his review of various approaches to early childhood education in the 1960s (e.g., Operation Head Start, Perry Preschool Project, etc.), psychologist David P. Weikart cited literature on neuroplasticity in adult rats (Weikart, 1966). Although written in the context of an early life “critical period” for learning, and contrasting the effects of exposure to deprived vs. enriched conditions on educational attainment in young children, he was aware of animal studies showing that neuroplastic changes continued into adulthood.

He was also ahead of his time in his beliefs that the causes of racial differences in IQ were not inherent, but a result of differences in socioeconomic status and access to resources (Weikart, 1966):
Pasamanick & Knoblock (1961) have documented the impact of deprivation most vividly in their study of infant development. Employing samples of [Black] and White infants selected for equal birth weights and absence of defects or premature birth, and using the Gesell Development Scale, they found no significant difference between the two groups at 40 weeks of age; the White babies obtained a developmental quotient of 105.4 and the [Black] babies as DQ of 104.5. At age 3, the first 300 of the original 1,000 children studied were retested and a highly significant difference was found. The developmental quotient of the White children rose to 110.9, while the DQ of the [Black] children fell to 97.4. 

In a 2003 biographical article, he was quoted as saying:
"Over the previous 10 years of standardized achievement testing (1948-1957), no class in the predominantly African American school ever exceeded the 10th percentile on national norms for any tested subject," he writes in his memoir. "Yet in the elementary school across town, which primarily served the children of white, middle-class university professionals, no class ever scored less than the 90th percentile."

To Weikart's mind, there was something wrong with the schools if one group of children was failing, while another group was doing fine. But the principals didn't see it that way. They said there was nothing wrong with the schools. It was the children. They weren't intelligent enough, they weren't capable of doing well.
. . .

"I was working in a context where most people felt that IQ was God-given, and unfortunately, low-IQ minority children were just born that way," writes Weikart in his memoir.

But some people were beginning to question this idea, including Weikart. He recalls learning about studies of cage-reared versus playground-reared rats in zoology courses he took during graduate school.

"These studies strongly suggested that problems caused by limited environments could be ameliorated by stimulus-rich opportunities," he wrote. "For me, the idea of enriched opportunities for poor children from limited backgrounds seemed justified by the findings from these ... studies."

This brief example from the education literature provides another reason that those peddling "neuroplasticity" as a fairly recent finding need to take a few history lessons (e.g.,  Now we know the brain is "neuroplastic"... in the 19th century).


Weikart DP (1966). Preschool Programs: Preliminary Findings. J Spec Educ. 1: 163-181.

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