Category Archives: Neuroscience

News from the Nervous Front

Via Encephalon #33, I learned about how microarray experiments (a high-throughput way of studying gene expression) are offering new ways to understand the evolution of the human brain. See the essay of neurobiotaxis, and the review article by Preuss et al.

The Neurocritic points to a PNAS paper which shows that the 5-HT4 receptors mediate the appetite-suppressant effect of Ecstasy. How can they tell this? Knock out the genes which produce 5-HT4 receptors in mice and feed them drugs!

This is where we play a spooky clip of Bruce Sterling saying, “Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being.”

Liberman on Uriagereka and FOXP2

Having aired my grievances about New Scientist (here, here and here), about Wired (here and over here) and about Time (yup, here), I was wondering when I’d get a chance to complain about Seed. This morning, Mark Liberman provides the necessary gripe-fodder, poking a big, sharp stick at Juan Uriagereka’s “The Evolution of Language” (25 September 2007).

Unlike much of the science writing that gets a blogospheric assault, today’s target involves a researcher stepping off into sheer speculation, rather than a journalist oversimplifying or seeking a false “balance.”

According to Liberman, Uriagereka “combines some important themes with what seem to me to be some bizarre fantasies.” Specifically, Liberman takes issue with the assertion that finches must have the same neural “parser” as humans do; while transmitting and receiving birdsong may well have general principles in common with transmitting and receiving human language, saying that the two must rely upon the same “parser” is going a measure too far.

Furthermore, Liberman says,
Continue reading Liberman on Uriagereka and FOXP2

Oliver Sacks, Mountaineer

I have my reasons to dislike Wired Magazine — trendy, faux-savvy, shoddy fact-checkers that they are — but they can do a sensible interview. To wit, see this piece on Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who told us about mistaking wives for hats. Sacks tells his interviewer, Steve Silberman, a great deal about his experiences with music.

I intensely dislike any reference to supernaturalism, but I think there can be profound mystical feelings which do not have to call on fictitious agencies like angels and demons and deities. The whole natural world is bathed in wonder and beauty and mystery. The feeling of the holy, the sacred, the wonderful, the mystical, can be divorced from anything theological, and is conveyed very powerfully in music.

While many a scientist has expressed a similar sentiment, Sacks also reveals that the pleasures of the academic lifestyle were not restricted to horticulture, at least not in the 1960s.

One day in 1964, I constructed a sort of pharmacological mountain, and at its peak, I said, “I want to see indigo, now!” As if thrown by a paintbrush, a huge, trembling drop of purest indigo appeared on the wall — the color of heaven. For months after that, I kept looking for that color. It was like the lost chord.

Sacks saw the color again, after hearing Monteverdi’s Vespers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the lapis lazuli snuffboxes which had appeared such a wonderful indigo turned out to be blue and mauve and pink when he looked at them again. “It took a mountain of amphetamine, mescaline, and cannabis to launch me into that space,” he says, “But Monteverdi did it too.”

Laden on Evolutionary Psychology

Greg Laden summarizes the evolutionary origins of human gender disparities.

I live with two females, and one of them is the only person in the house who can program the VCR. I can do it if I need to, but I threw out the directions and it will take me a while to figure out, and blood will be spilled and profanities uttered. Both of my female house mates are about as fixated on the remote as I am. They tend to be able to find it more easily than I can, because their ancestors were gatherers and finding the remote is roughly the same thing as finding nuts, berries, and most importantly, plant underground storage organs. I, on the other hand, descend from a long line of hunters, so I tend to hunt the remote. Hunting, as is well known, tends to yield a more inconsistent return. So most of the time I don’t find any remote at all, and now and then, I find three or four of them in one episode of searching.

I’m sure that a similar argument will soon be able to explain the different sizes of the male and female crockus. Clearly, the crockular region of the frontal lobe was once used to coordinate the swimming motions necessary when holding a child in the water, as per the aquatic ape hypothesis.

Non-materialist Neuroscience

Trent Toulouse writes to say that RationalWiki has finished switching its service providers, so that it is once again available at I had previously pointed to their growing article on non-materialist neuroscience, the domain of Michael Egnor and Denyse O’Leary. The article is clearly a work in progress, but it’s already a good read.

I added some stuff on the abuse of quantum mechanics, too.

Salvinorin A Acts on k-Opioid Receptors

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchReally, that’s about the size of it (although I do get a small kick from writing about psychedelic drugs immediately after wallowing in cultural heresies like multilingualism).

Salvia divinorum, which is scientist’s Latin for “diviner’s sage,” is a smokable plant which induces powerful but relatively short-lasting hallucinations. The main active ingredient, salvinorin A, acts on a class of nerve-cell input devices known as “κ-opioid receptors.” It’s a κ-opioid agonist, which is the opposite of antagonist — inducing activity, rather than suppressing it. Folks in the know had hypothesized that salvinorin A acted on the κ-opioid receptors, but Catherine B. Willmore-Fordham of Ohio Northern University and her colleagues were recently able to prove it. Of course, they had to work with rats, instead of people.

The paper, damnably, is locked behind a subscription wall, because Neuropharmacology is an Elsevier journal. (You did hear that Elsevier publishes a journal called Homeopathy, didn’t you? I guess they had to make up for the lost profits of not running arms fairs anymore.) Still, ye olde trusty webloggers will come through in a pinch:
Continue reading Salvinorin A Acts on k-Opioid Receptors

Neurophilosophy on Synaesthesia

Over at Neurophilosophy, Mo — who has just added Sunclipse to his blogroll! — gives us a nice summary of the neuropsychology of synaesthesia. What makes some people see letters in color, either indelibly in their visual field or vividly in their “mind’s eye”? What causes an association between colors and musical sounds, and why do people experience the “mirror touch” effect, in which a person feels a tactile sensation when they observe another individual being touched? Moreover, if — as it now appears — these phenomena are more common than previously expected, might they in fact be the extremes of a spectrum of variation?

This is all fascinating stuff, particularly to an associative grapheme-color and tone-color synaesthete like me! Does my fusiform gyrus have defective feedback between area V4 and adjacent patches of cortex, and where can I sign up to find out? (I note with detachment that Drs. Rouw and Scholte, who published the evidence for this connection, work at the University of Amsterdam, clearly an interesting place to poke the brain, one way or another.)

Novella on Glutamine, AMPA and Antidepressants

The comment-posting mechanism over at NeuroLogica seems to be on the fritz, so I’ll take this opportunity to use my own blag to thank Dr. Steven Novella for replying to my question about a new potential class of antidepressants. I had noticed a glancing mention of neuroscientists growing interested in treating depression by working on the brain’s glutamate mechanisms.

The short version is that ketamine, an anaesthetic, veterinary tranquilizer and sometimes recreational drug, mucks with the brain’s neurotransmitter signaling by blocking NMDA receptors, thereby leaving more glutamate floating in the synapses to bind to AMPA receptors. And, in not-very-rigorous trials, this seems to make people happier!

Clearly, the next logical step is to start giving drugs to laboratory animals. C. A. Zarate and colleagues at NIMH found that doping mice with a drug which inhibited AMPA receptors reduced the behavioral effects of ketamine. This suggests that compounds which work directly to boost AMPA receptor activity — AMPA agonists — might also have an antidepressant effect.

All in all, fascinating stuff.

Return to Reasonable Arguments

Eric Michael Johnson at the Primate Diaries:

Collins can believe whatever he likes about his experience, as can anyone. We all live with our private fantasies to a certain extent. However Harris’ point is that in the admirable attempt to be inclusive, Nature‘s editors were foregoing their primary role as skeptical inquirers of sound science. Should they favorably review the next book on astrology if it also includes a reasonably good description of cosmic evolution? I think the point Harris makes is a good one and something we should seriously consider as scientists and citizens. We’ve seen how effectively faith has led the way in foreign policy decisions. Perhaps a return to reasonable arguments based on solid evidence would be a wiser course for the future.

A return to reasonable arguments. . . based on solid evidence. . . You know, I rather like it.

So, one might gather, does Sandra Kiume at Neurofuture, who made that catchphrase the recurring theme of Encephalon #30.

I’ve been trying to study the way science journalism works — and, often, doesn’t work — for a while now. Way back in March, whole eons of Internet time ago and before I even had a blag of my own, Russell Blackford and I discussed serious inaccuracies in media coverage of Wikipedia. Later, here at Sunclipse, I described a rough taxonomy of science journalism failures, and hypothesized that a tendency to “false balance” may well have skewed coverage on string theory when Smolin and Woit rolled their books out. Then, I summarized the story of an incident where New Scientist magazine was not just careless, but downright irresponsible.

These topics fall under the general rubrics of physics and technology, but popularization and journalistic coverage of neuroscience is also a big concern. I have the suspicion that brain and cognitive sciences will provoke the same reaction in the near future that evolution does today — and I’m far from the first to say so. Learning about how people learn about this science is, therefore, quite important.

And the outlook is not good. Compare the size of the wheat and chaff listings at the Neuro-Journalism Mill: the sheer quantity of misinformation stymies the attempt to summarize or classify it. Encephalon #30 brings two more relevant essays. First, the Neurocritic takes New Scientist to task for a sensational headline and an exaggerated claim about genetics and memory. Then, at Pure Pedantry, Jake Young takes the New York Times to task for an article which gets the facts of rodent spatial memory correct, but bungles the interpretation.

Interesting stuff. Now, I’m just waiting to see what the experts say about the possibility of glutamine-based antidepressants and the coverage it receives. I note that Denise Gellene’s story in today’s LA Times works a little to counteract the infamous “it’s all serotonin” story, a glib line spread by advertising but unsupported by science.

PZ Myers: No Ghosts in Your Brain

Recently, the Web’s very own PZ Myers gave an introductory talk on the human brain, the cells which make it up and the odd behaviors its owners demonstrate. The video comes in two parts, the first covering fairly well-established science and the second giving an overview of currently reasonable speculations.

If you expected the doyen of science blogging to breathe fire and advance the slides in his presentation by slamming his laptop keyboard with a tentacle, well, you’ll be disappointed. Otherwise, enjoy.
Continue reading PZ Myers: No Ghosts in Your Brain

Quantum Flapdoodle, Part N

Somebody just found my site by Googling for quantum model in social studies. I’m the ninth hit, one notch below Stuart Hameroff himself; leading the hit parade was a conference presentation abstract by a certain A. Wendt, entitled “Quantum Mind and Social Science.” The abstract itself follows below the fold. It’s not quantum feminism, but it does have a certain charm.
Continue reading Quantum Flapdoodle, Part N

My Alien Abduction Story

I’ve set a simulation to crunching away in the background, so for a little while, I can tell myself that I’m being “productive” whilst in fact tossing up a quick blag post. An interesting experience which used to happen to me fairly often recurred a few days ago, so I figured I should resuscitate some old thoughts about it. You see, I enjoyed the privilege of an alien abduction every few weeks during my junior year of MIT.

Let me elaborate on that:
Continue reading My Alien Abduction Story

Dangerous Ideas

I must admit that when I hear somebody talking about “dangerous ideas,” one of my eyebrows will — without voluntary intervention on my part — lift upwards, Spock-style. Such talk invariably reminds me of my old film-studies professor, David Thorburn, who said, paraphrasing the acerbic Gerald Graff, “if the self-preening metaphors of peril, subversion and ideological danger in the literary theorists’ account of their work were taken seriously, their insurance costs would match those for firefighters, Grand Prix drivers and war correspondents.”

Still, when Bee at Backreaction says something is interesting, I take a look. Today’s topic is the Edge annual question for 2006, “What is your Dangerous Idea?” Up goes the eyebrow. I don’t want to go near the Susskind/Greene spat about “anthropic” reasoning; frankly, without technical details far beyond the level of an Edge essay, “anthropic” talk rapidly devolves into inanities which resemble the assertion, “Hitler had to lose the war, because otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting around talking about why Hitler lost the war.” Suffice to say that neither Susskind nor Greene mentions NP-complete problems or proton decay.

So, moving on, let’s get to what Bee calls “the more bizarre pieces.” I was particularly drawn to and repelled from (yeah, it was a weird feeling) the essays of Rupert Sheldrake and Rudy Rucker. The latter goes off about “panpsychism,” which sounds like a fantastic opportunity to ramble about quantum mechanics, the inner lives of seashells and the dictionary of Humpty Dumpty, in which words mean exactly what the speaker wants them to mean, reason and usage notwithstanding.

Hey, “consciousness” is just one tiny part of what living things do, and life is a teensy fraction of what the Universe does. Why not give the rest of the biosphere a little attention and support “panphotosynthesism” instead?
Continue reading Dangerous Ideas

Neuro-Journalism Mill

The Neuro-Journalism Mill is a website (with a slightly different organization than your average blag) which is dedicated to sorting good journalism from bad, where the brain is concerned. The former is labeled wheat, while the latter is sorted into the chaff. The Mill carries the sponsorship of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, which seems to have a brain-heavy focus, naturally making me wonder if there are analogous places one could get paid to critique the journalism of physics. (Perhaps the JSMF would give me money for writing about “complex systems”?)

Questions of my own financial gain aside, I’m glad to see people providing this kind of critique. Getting anybody to listen is, of course, the next step, and given the stakes involved, it’s a step we should devote serious effort to taking. I’ve opined before — and I’m not the only one — that our advancing knowledge of the brain will become an increasingly hostile front in the struggle against anti-science. What is happening with evolution today will happen with cognitive science in ten years, and so learning how the people are informed — and, often, misinformed — is vitally important.

(Link via Mind Hacks and Brain Waves.)

Psychedelic Bibliographies

Advances in the History of Psychology, a blog operated out of York University, has posted annotated bibliographies of psychedelic research, both on general psychological research and on studies focusing specifically on LSD.

(Hah! And you thought I was just trying to make a strange juxtaposition in my title.)

The AHP folks note something which I find interesting but not wholly unexpected: while plenty of papers have been written about LSD and marijuana, the academic literature doesn’t appear to have histories dedicated to the two-carbon phenethylamines like 2C-B or other significant drugs like DMT, DOM or mescaline. These remarkable little molecules sometimes get mentioned in general discussions or in studies of other drugs, but they don’t appear to have peer-reviewed literature of their own. PiHKAL (1991) and TiHKAL (1997) seem to be the end of the line.

One unfortunate consequence of this lack is our inability to judge the universality of neurological reactions to chemical stimuli. In this context, I’d like to bring up the paper by Bressloff, Cowan, Golubitsky and Thomas in Neural Computation (2002), “What geometric visual hallucinations tell us about the visual cortex.”
Continue reading Psychedelic Bibliographies