Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Neuroscience: Can "locked-in" sufferers tweet, using brain signals alone?

According to a recent (4/20/09) release from the University of Wisconsin-Madison,
In early April, biomedical engineer Adam Wilson posted a status update on the social networking Web site Twitter - just by thinking about it.

Just 23 characters long, his message, "using EEG to send tweet," demonstrates a natural, manageable way in which "locked-in" patients can couple brain-computer interface technologies with modern communication tools.
A "tweet is a Twitter message.

"Locked-in" means that due to a disease, you can't move or speak (except possibly for eye movements) but are fully conscious. Yes, I know, it does sound awful, but it happens, often due to catastrophic accidents. (Note: "Locked-in" syndrome should be distinguished from persistent vegetative state (PVS), in which the person's state of consciousness is not certain. A person in PVS might not benefit from a highly active communication system.)
The interface consists, essentially, of a keyboard displayed on a computer screen. "The way this works is that all the letters come up, and each one of them flashes individually," says Williams. "And what your brain does is, if you're looking at the 'R' on the screen and all the other letters are flashing, nothing happens. But when the 'R' flashes, your brain says, 'Hey, wait a minute. Something's different about what I was just paying attention to.' And you see a momentary change in brain activity."

Wilson, who used the interface to post the Twitter update, likens it to texting on a cell phone. "You have to press a button four times to get the character you want," he says of texting. "So this is kind of a slow process at first."

However, as with texting, users improve as they practice using the interface. "I've seen people do up to eight characters per minute," says Wilson.

A free service, Twitter has been called a "micro-blogging" tool. User updates, called tweets, have a 140-character limit — a manageable message length that fits locked-in users' capabilities, says Williams.
Presumably, like other prisoners, locked-in patients have time to spare, so they can sort through the letters.

However, caution, this has - so far as I can see - not yet been tested on actual locked-in sufferers. Still, it remains a viable research project for helping to free them, at least a little bit.

Here's a demo.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose


Neuroscience: Wanna remember yourself as a star? Just edit your memory!

In "Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory" (April 5, 2009), Benedict Carey sheds some light on why The New York Times is in such deep financial trouble:
Suppose scientists could erase certain memories by tinkering with a single substance in the brain. Could make you forget a chronic fear, a traumatic loss, even a bad habit.

Researchers in Brooklyn have recently accomplished comparable feats, with a single dose of an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory, like emotional associations, spatial knowledge or motor skills.

The drug blocks the activity of a substance that the brain apparently needs to retain much of its learned information. And if enhanced, the substance could help ward off dementias and other memory problems.

So far, the research has been done only on animals. But scientists say this memory system is likely to work almost identically in people.
People edit their memories all the time. In fact, that is the biggest problem with memory. We can't rely on it.

The idea seems to be that targeted editing of memories will help with addictions and Alzheimer. Not sure about the Alzheimer, so keep talking.

About addictions: Basically, the "edited" person would just go get addicted again, to the same substance or to some other one. Ways of life and attitudes to life produce addiction; neurons are only an internal support system - either for addiction or recovery.

And get the last sentence:
Yet as scientists begin to climb out of the dark foothills and into the dim light, they are now poised to alter the understanding of human nature in ways artists and writers have not.
Every system I have ever heard of that promotes this idea, from phrenology through eugenics through lobotomy and onward has produced at best folly and at worst misery.

Don't listen to this. Listen to the artists and writers - at least those who have earned respect. Learn from your memories as much as you can, in which case it is best not to edit them much.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

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Neuroplasticity: Once "fringe" and now "cutting edge" - but career almost ruined

In Britain's Guardian, Ian Sample reviews Norman Doidge's new book, The Brain That Changes Itself, commenting ("Our flexible friend", Tuesday April 07 2009):
What was regarded as fringe science 40 years ago is currently at the cutting edge of neuroscience. With the right training, scientists now know the brain can reshape itself to work around dead and damaged areas, often with dramatic benefits. Therapies that exploit the brain's power to adapt have helped people overcome damage caused by strokes, depression, anxiety and learning disabilities, and may one day replace drugs for some of these conditions. Some studies suggest therapies that tap into the brain's neuroplasticity are already making a big difference. Children with language difficulties have been shown to make significant progress using computer training tools that are the equivalent of cerebral cross-training. Work is underway to investigate whether it is possible to stave off a loss of brain plasticity in older age, which might help to address memory problems linked to Alzheimer's disease. Some psychoanalysts are adopting techniques to help people overcome relationship troubles, obsessions, worries and bad habits.

The idea of brain plasticity has been discovered and forgotten many times over the centuries. The ancient Greeks accepted the idea, with Socrates believing that people could train their brains the way gymnasts train their bodies. Around the time of Galileo, the idea fell out of favour, as scientists began to see the world mechanistically, with each object, organ and even parts of an organ being attributed well-defined, unchanging roles. It was these ideas that led to the notion of our brains being "hardwired", an idea that today is steadily being overturned.
It's good to see this message getting out - but the discoveries were not without cost.

Doidge tells the story of a scientist whose career was nearly wrecked by the all-too-typical hostile science establishment, as he was trying to determine the facts: "A Christmas tale: Neuroscientist discovers hope for stroke victims - and science establishment's hostility".

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

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Spirituality: Michael Gerson on Andrew Newberg's new "How God Changes Your Brain" book

In "A Searcher With Faith in Mind" in the Washington Post, Michael Gerson comments (April 15, 2009 ) on Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman's new book, How God Changes Your Brain:
Using brain imaging studies of Franciscan nuns and Buddhist practitioners, and Sikhs and Sufis -- along with everyday people new to meditation -- Newberg asserts that traditional spiritual practices such as prayer and breath control can alter the neural connections of the brain, leading to "long-lasting states of unity, peacefulness and love." He assures the mystically challenged (such as myself) that these neural networks begin to develop quickly -- a matter of weeks in meditation, not decades on a Tibetan mountaintop. And though meditation does not require a belief in God, strong religious belief amplifies its effect on the brain and enhances "social awareness and empathy while subduing destructive feelings and emotions."
Gerson does comment, however,
"How God Changes Your Brain" has many revelations -- and a few limitations. In a practical, how-to tone, it predicts "an epiphany that can improve the inner quality of your life. For most Americans, that is what spirituality is about." But if this is what spirituality is all about, it isn't about very much. Mature faith sometimes involves self-sacrifice, not self-actualization; anguish, not comfort. If the primary goal of religion is escape or contentment, there are other, even more practical methods to consider. "I didn't go to religion to make me happy," said C.S. Lewis, "I always knew a bottle of port would do that." The same could be said of psychedelic drugs, which can mimic spiritual ecstasy.
Yes, that is a basic problem. To transform one's life, one must begin by wanting to know what is right and true, not what feels good. And to be fair to Newberg, he has emphasized elsewhere that one must work on meditation to see any results. Or, as I would say,

Neural Buddhists: The Buddha does not drop two grand for meditation gear and then forget it all two weeks later and take up tennis - and expect to see any lasting or important inner changes.

But this is one book I have got to get. Here's more on it.

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Medicine: Jet lag is a disorder? But then what about ...

At Mind Hacks, we learn (April 7, 2009) from Vaughan that “Drug company pushes jet lag as a medical disorder”:
The Wall Street Journal's health blog reports that drug company Cephalon are trying to get jet lag recognised as a 'circadian rhythm sleep disorder' in an attempt to promote their stay-up-forever drugs modafinil and armodafinil.

Modafinil, under the trade name Provigil, is currently a big seller for the company owing to the fact that it deletes the need for sleep and improves concentration typically without making the person feel particularly 'wired'.

It's licensed for the treatment of narcolepsy but is widely used by people without a prescription to stay awake and fend off mental tiredness.
But as it happens, the patent is running out, and competitors can easily produce the product cheaper.

He charges,
Because in many countries drug must be approved for a medical problem, Cephalon are trying to get jet lag classified as a disorder so they have a whole new market for their compound.
Hmmm. This story certainly brings back memories. Many years ago, I had a college roommate who took a more primitive version of this sort of wakey wakey - just a super jolt of caffeine, and it was sold over the counter. Under especially heavy stress due to exams, she took far too many and ... well, she ended up having to continue her studies later.

I had a different view myself: I always insisted on lots of sleep during exams because a really tired person might not know when she is studying inefficiently. I also usually stopped studying 24 hours before a given exam (having reviewed the material thorough beforehand, of course).

The interval gave the material time to "settle" in my mind, to ensure that the central ideas emerged clearly. Why be confused by a forest of facts and factoids whose hierarchical relation to the central ideas is uncertain or unimportant? Good idea, bad idea, I don't know. But I performed very well on the essay questions, because my responses were formed around central ideas.

Question: Jet lag is uncomfortable, but if it is a disorder, what about ennui and frustration over long, uncomfortable, annoying rides on overcrowded transit buses and subways, where you are shoved into the elbow of someone you've never met for twenty minutes? At least on a plane, you are guaranteed your own seat.

My view: If one reacts negatively to what is really abnormal, that is not a disorder, it's a sign of healthy functioning. And, I'd stay well away from the "stay awake" pills.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

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Skeptic’s Review of The Spiritual Brain

Doug Mesner writes asking me to respond to a review of The Spiritual Brain which he published in Skeptic Magazine, and he has now helpfully made the review available on line. He writes,
The book distresses me in that I see in it an early Creationist assault on the Cognitive Sciences, and the formation of the false scientific arguments that may be brought to the stem cell debate in years to come.
Mesner sounds like a male Amanda Gefter. (Hey, I am all for equal opportunity, so that's fine with me.)

He wants a free exchange of views, but sadly, one thing that is not free is my time just now, so I must decline.

I am not sure why he references the stem cell debate, but if people like Gefter and Mesner are entitled to private definitions of creationism, I guess they can apply their definitions and worries to the stem cell debate, wind energy, or the assignment of parking spaces in municipally owned garages - or anything else they want to.

Having almost finished Alva Noe’s thoughtful Out of Our Heads Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness and having read Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself, I would say that the skepticism (= materialism) espoused by Mesner is dead in the water and electrification of the corpse by a long discussion will not help. Things have just moved on.

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