Chaff

Chaff

2009-05-18 Study Urges Using Neuroscience To Improve Soldiers' Performance
2009-05-28 A Human Language Gene Changes the Sound of Mouse Squeaks
2009-04-06 Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory
2009-01-19 Men see bikini-clad women as objects, psychologists say
2009-01-15 The Brain, Your Honor, Will Take the Witness Stand
2009-01-13 Anti-Love Drug May Be Ticket to Bliss
2008-12-08 With Treats, Dogs Seem to Know What's Fair
2008-10-29 Scientists Identify Brain's 'Hate Circuit'
2008-09-04 The Biology of Ideology
2008-07-27 Brain Teasers
2008-06-03 The Science of Sarcasm (Not That You Care)
2008-04-30 Meeting on the Right Side of the Brain
2008-03-19 Doctor: "Ichiro has a very fine prefrontal cortex"
2008-03-07 Maternal Instinct Is Wired Into the Brain
2008-03-06 Radio Lab: Into the Brain of a Liar
2008-01-31 Price Tag Can Change The Way People Experience Wine, Study Shows
2007-12-07 Stem Cells Used to Treat Disease / Stem-cell research boosts hope for sickle-cell patients
2007-12-02 Anorexia visible with brain scans
2007-11-19 Study: Aging brains can benefit from 'training'
2007-11-11 This is your brain on politics
2007-09-10 Study finds left-wing brain, right-wing brain
2007-09-17 Sleeping Babies' Brains Buzz
2007-08-07 Chemical tied to disorder in 2 studies
2007-06-15 Donating to Charity is Good for the Brain, According to Study
2007-06-13 Cockroaches Can Learn -- Like Dogs and Humans
2007-05-20 Al Gore Has Big Plans
2007-05-17 Why Do Most 16-Year-Olds Drive Like They're Missing a Part of Their Brain?
2007-05-11 Scientists Draw Link Between Morality and Brain's Wiring
2007-05-09 The Five Biggest Neuroscience Developments of the Year
2007-04-20 Brain May Hold Key to Killing Impulse
2007-04-20 Brain Damage Makes Moral Quandaries Simpler
2007-02-20 Some sweet news: Chocolate could be good for your memory
2007-02-13 Is It Love or Mental Illness? They're Closer Than You Think
2006-11-29 This Is Your Brain on a Strong Brand: MRIs Show Even Insurers Can Excite
2006-09-20 Music training boosts the brain
2006-09-20 US study finds fear on-off switch in brain
2006-09-20 Creepy "Shadow Person" Effect Conjured by Brain Shocks
2006-08-30 Study: No 'God Spot' in the Brain
2006-05-15 Eyesight Hopes
2006-01-31 Holding Loved One's Hand Can Calm Jittery Neurons
2006-01-29 When Bad Neurojournalism is Published, Careful Scientists Cringe (but Less Careful Scientists Don’t)
2006-01-18 Cells That Read Minds
2005-11-18 Timid Mice Made Daring by Removing One Gene
2005-11-03 Study: Mice Sing Mating Song
2005-10-28 Mind Over Moods: This is your brain on PMS
2005-08-15 The Male Condition
2005-05-31 Watching New Love as It Sears the Brain
2005-03-21 Learn More About the Cognitive Paparazzi!
2004-07-03 How babies become addicted to their mothers
2003-06-22 Savant for a Day
2003-02-07 How Humans React When Bad Things Occur Again and Again
2002-04-23 A Dr. Dolittle approach to brain studies
2001-11-25 Brain Cells; The Mind's Decline is No Longer a Given
2001-08-08 Chess brains take it easy
2001-06-05 Are Teens Just Wired That Way? Researchers Theorize Brain Changes Are Linked to Behavior
2001-05-21 Study Says Jet Lag Shrinks Brain
2000-11-29 Women Use More of Brain When Listening, Study Says
2000-10-28 Looking for That Brain Wave Called Love: Humanities Experts Use MRI's to Scan the Mind for the Locus of the Finer Feelings
2000-07-28 Searching for the Mark of Cain
2000-07-21 Study Finds Region of Brain May Be Key Problem Solver
2000-05-13 Opinion Interview
2000-04-02 The He Hormone
2000-03-04 Men's Brains Have More Cells, Say Scientists Who Counted
2000-03-14 Just What's Going On Inside That Head of Yours?
2000-01-04 A Decade of Discovery Yields Shock About the Brain
1999-08-09 Inside the Teen Brain: The reason for your kid's quirky behavior is in his head.
1999-08-01 Between the Sexes: It's a Matter of Gray and White
1999-06-06 Journey to the Center of my Mind
1999-04-16 Estrogen Aides Brain Activity, Tests Find
1999-03-22 Right-Brain, Left-Brain Learning Dance
1998-11-20 Music as Food for the Brain
1998-09-01 Nothing Becomes a Man More Than a Woman's Face
1998-04-13 Brain Scans Suggest Some Are Born With Violent Tendencies


Study Urges Using Neuroscience To Improve Soldiers' Performance
By Walter Pincus, Washington Post, 2009-05-18
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/17/AR2009051701887.html
Posted: 2009-06-05

Thanks go out to a neurocurmudgeonly colleague who drew our attention to this story.   Otherwise it was very likely that it would not have made it on the radar.   What can we say?   So neuroscience is to soldiering as physics is to projectiles? Really?   On top of everything else do soldiers REALLY need portable MRI scanners attached to their helmets so we can see if their “fear-correlated neural activity patterns" fire up as they are fired upon?  Although we do not have direct military experience - the neurocurmudgeons are willing to bet that in battle there is fear, anxiety, confusion, worry, bravery, heroism, decision making, an myriad other human attributes.   And if it is really warranted - there are fields of study that could be brought to bear -- psychology, cognitive science, sociology.  Misguided functional imaging is probably NOT want these soldiers need.   A battlefield commander
needing a signaling devise attached by gel to the heads of his/her soldiers to determine when they are reaching fatigue and exhaustion -- needs to be replaced by commanders with awareness of and appreciation for human capacity and its limits.    Need we go on -- the  neurocurmudgeons advise taking the $millions and rewarding the very people so much is demanded of -- the soldiers.

And if there is a real interest in using neuroscience to help soldiers -- how about designing helmets that mitigate brain injuries by decreasing the rotational sheer accompanying blast injuries?   Now that would be money well spent.

 

 


A Human Language Gene Changes the Sound of Mouse Squeaks
By Nicholas Wade, The New York Times, 2009-05-28
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/29/science/29mouse.html?_r=1
Posted: 2009-06-01

We neurocurmudgeons were rendered squeakless. Thankfully - Monty Python is there to help -- and was, as is so often true, way ahead of it's time.  

 

 


Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory
By Benedict Carey, The New York Times, 2009-04-06
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/06/health/research/06brain.html?_r=1
Posted: 2009-04-09

The April 6, 2009 NYT piece by Benedict Carey "Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory" – takes schlock-y science stories to a new low.  First, one of the neurocurmudgeons actually hails from the outer-boroughs and was a bit miffed that Downstate was depicted as if it were somewhere out in the boondocks (Brooklyn? They did important science in Brooklyn?).  We want to assure the NYT-reading world that there is intelligent life, rodent and otherwise, in Brooklyn.  We could understand being surprised if this had happened in Queens, or maybe Staten Island, but not Brooklyn.   Another neurocurmudgeon enjoying life at a state university, (A public university? They did this at a public university?) had ruffled fur at first at first, but then re-considered (maybe a squirt of PKMzeta?).   Maybe describing Downstate Medical Center as a backwater where you have time to think was one of those weird, back-handed compliments for which bagel-munching Brooklynites are famous?
The neurocurmudgeons also have an immediate aversion (a matter of taste, perhaps?) to any use in science journalism, particularly about the brain, of “sending men to the moon.”  We think that by now you get the idea – this article reads like it was written by a gee-whizzing 7th grader from the Upper West Side who wandered across the Brooklyn Bridge by accident only to find out people actually live, work, hope and dream on the other side of it.  Who knew?  It also reads like it was written by someone who thinks neuroscience was invented …ah, yesterday. 

The actual scientific finding reported by Dr. Sacktor and his colleagues is interesting and important.  And it is an important piece of a very, very large puzzle with lots of interestingly shaped pieces.    That said, the neurocurmudgeons are not sure how you tell for certain when science is wandering on the plains, gently ascending the foothills, or scaling the mountains -- but we are fairly adept at recognizing molehills and the attempt to make something too much  out of them.    This could have been an interesting story about the nature of memory – unfortunately, it isn’t.   But, one good thing may come of it.   Now that the NYT has written about him, Dr. Sacktor can finally make peace with the fact that he left a private university in Manhattan for a public one in Brooklyn.  Youze done good, Todd. 

 

 


Men see bikini-clad women as objects, psychologists say
By Elizabeth Landau, CNN, 2009-02-19
http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/02/19/women.bikinis.objects/index.html
Posted: 2009-02-25

Ouch - the neurojournalists almost caught we neurocurmudgeons tooling around!  Lulled by the surprising quiet of the usual Valentine's day neuro-madness we almost missed this one.  Thankfully a bad neurojournalism spotter gearing up for Mardi Gras was alert!   We didn't catch the talk inspiring CNN at AAAS (the neurocurmudgeons were too busy being scared witless by the climate scientists) but we hope the original source is less muddled than the news story.  We start with "women as objects" and then morph into "sexy women as goals" and then something about "action."  Look, don't get us wrong -- we don't like the idea of humans being objectified for any reason in any context.  But neither can we defend shoddy science just because we might have warm and fuzzy feelings for the findings.  Or because the findings yield funny news stories. Or because the funny news story leads to even funnier hi-jinks around the office coffee pot.  We neurocurmudgeons have our principles and they are firmly lodged in our anterior cingulates - or is it our dorsal lateral prefrontal cortexes, or, wait, maybe our amygdalas? (Whatever, so long as they have not slipped into our basal ganglia we're probably OK.) Well, just like our principles, ill-defined terms like goals, objects, and actions share certain attributes and tumble into the familiar mosh pit of the usual suspects "lighting up" and popping through the noise of over-processed brain images.  And please, please before we default to blaming evolution - let's remember what brains REALLY do - learn from experience.  Finally - although we don't want to tangle with the entire P-wave, we can't help wondering -should a study carried out with 2 dozen Princeton undergraduates really be overly-generalized?  We'd be more cautious.

 

 


The Brain, Your Honor, Will Take the Witness Stand
By Robert Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal, 2009-01-15
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123205921925787437.html
Posted: 2009-01-19

The neurocurmudgeons had our morning joe and turned to the Friday WSJ with the sense we were about to receive an embarrassment of riches – turns we are just embarrassed by the apparent lack of any real news or progress in the neurosciences that forces neurojournalists to funnel old wine into new bottles.   Today’s WSJ science column by Robert Lee Hotz (The Brain, Your Honor, Will Take the Witness Stand WSJ Feb 16, page A7) provides this stunning insight: when in the courtroom, we think with our brains.   We are thrilled to learn that the same old brain with which we shop, read, drive, fall in love, choose our dinner entrees, elect our government, and navigate around the neighborhood also plays a role in --- (drum roll) -- legal thinking.   We also admit to a feeling of relief (hmmm...wonder if we feel relief with our brains?), as we are sure do those who have long suspected that the legal system could be relying on various other anatomical parts. Regular followers of the “gee-whiz, the brain does it” chronicles will also recognize the familiar brain-bits the accompanying diagram informs us is called into play in the courtroom.  Yep, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (reasoning), the anterior cingulate (decision making), and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (risk).    We were somewhat surprised not to see the following brain-bits identified as “associated with legal thinking”: the visual cortex (perhaps justice really is blind?), the reticular activating system (does this explain those urban legends of sleeping lawyers?), or the cerebellum (surely it plays some role? The neurocurmudgeons like the cerebellum because, like us, it is under-appreciated).

To be fair, Mr. Hotz does strive for balance and cover the caveats.   The neurocurmudgeons were particularly pleased to see Hal Pashler’s take on voodoo statistics get some coverage.  But surely – in the big wide world of science there is something new, something fresh, something clever that could make better use of what we suspect is a rather expensive half-page of print?

 

 


Anti-Love Drug May Be Ticket to Bliss
By John Tierney, The New York Times, 2009-01-13
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/13/science/13tier.html
Posted: 2009-01-15

Wow - this one almost caught the neurocurmudgeons napping (perhaps someone squirted some melatonin up our noses?). We tend to be on the alert for stories of this ilk around the Valentine's Day silly season (second only to the days of the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting for striking fear in a neurocurmudgeon's heart). Nothing quite gets the attention like an academic offering a "grand unified theory of love." One could quibble with our dear Dr. Young (and we've never feared quibbling) that prairie vole mating is not quite love - if anything (and we do mean if) it could be akin to physical lust. We might further quibble that it is not in fact a fact that every human has a peculiar erotic fascination with breasts (although it did strike us that this story's author does seem to have that peculiar fascination...). We seriously hope that the press officers at research institutions don't pay TOO much attention - neurojournalists may find themselves falling in love with all kinds of findings passing as neuro-news when their offices are flooded with oxytocin-soaked press releases.

 

 


With Treats, Dogs Seem to Know What's Fair
By Henry Fountain, The New York Times, 2008-12-08
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/09/science/09obenvy.html
Posted: 2008-12-11

OK - the neurocurmudgeons were hesitant to pick on a dog story - especially as everyone is misty-eyed over photos of their beloved pooch dressed as Santa - but the bad neurojournalism spotters called us on it - and so, the neurocurmudgeons will tread where angels fear.   Technically, this is not "neuro" journalism but "behavioral" journalism, but we know where this is heading and we are hoping we can nip the budding fMRI experiment (or even more scary - the genomic study).    If only these scientists had watched just a few episodes of The Dog Whisperer - all would be revealed.   Perhaps PNAS should get a cable subscription?

 

 


Scientists Identify Brain's 'Hate Circuit'
By Robert Preidt, Healthday News, 2008-10-29
http://www.healthday.com/Article.asp?AID=620734
Posted: 2008-10-29

We neurocurmudgeons are always saddened when our neuro-colleagues offer grist for the mill and it yields much chaff and little wheat.    Even curmudgeons require some sustenance to keep going.

Our latest posting was brought to our attention by one of our "bad neurojournalism" spotters who wondered if reading such pieces were activating our hate circuits.  We're not sure.  But how annoying it would be to have one's feeling of dislike (dislike is as far as we can go, Neurocurmudgeons are rather gentle at heart) be misinterpreted as evidence of romantic love!    We suspect that if  we were to be scanned while reading this piece the mix of emotions, such as despair and dislike combined with amusement and astonishment, would yield images providing no insight into our inner thoughts and judgments.   We certainly would not want these images used to interpret our actions.  We particularly like the free-wheeling explanation provided in the closing paragraphs.   Our reward circuit was abuzz. But, we accept not everyone feels the same way.  You have your insula, we have ours.   After reading the piece The Mill invites you to send in your interpretation of the findings.  We think social networking could do wonders for social cognitive neuroscience.

 


The Biology of Ideology
By Robert Lee Hotz, The Wall Street Journal, 2008-09-04
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122047003725696177.html
Posted: 2008-09-05

Today’s posting hits a home run when it comes to the criteria for Chaff – particularly when it comes to the criteria of reporting on findings of dubious value. We know the author can always invoke the journalistic defense of “balance” -- stringing together the advocates and the naysayers. But it would be nice if every now and then the urge to hook scientific findings to current events was resisted.

The neurocurmudgeons are so weary of pointing out the flaws of simplistically linking biological findings to behavior – particularly when the “behavior” is as poorly defined as political ideology. We thought we might resist our own urges. But, our anterior cingulate wouldn’t let us.

Despite the promise of the catchy headline and the graphic – the 5 September WSJ Science Journal is NOT about the biology of ideology. It is certainly not about the genetics of political behavior. It is true, as the article quotes, “…in a broad sense, biology shapes all of behavior.” In this case in “broad as the side of a barn” sense. Thankfully the highlighted studies mainly draw on individuals living in predominantly two-party systems, like the US and the UK– the genetics of Italian political ideology might get as complicated as – well, gee- tumor biology (see below).

We might have been more interested if the profiled studies had found intriguing differences in the liberal versus conservative gene for succinate dehydrogenase. Then we could speculate that liberals are just a tad more energetic than conservatives. What fun if the difference was in the gene for myosin! This might have hinted at an advantage for one group over another when it comes to using the voting booth touch screen. But sadly – it turns out the genes are involved in regulating those usual behavioral suspects, yep, serotonin and dopamine. The NCs are now very concerned about what happens if one eats a turkey sandwich the evening prior to Election Day? Could environmental influences override our genetic propensities? Could the Butterball advertising jeopardize the entire democratic process? Just whose idea was it to put Election Day so close to Thanksgiving anyway?!

The NC’s were surprised to learn that the dopamine link may have something to do with “sensitizing us to new experiences, and a tilt toward liberal political ideology.” Sad to think that a biological quirk, no one’s fault really, dooms conservatives – insensitive to new experiences- to the sorry fate of living the same way each and every day, over and over – like the poor Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day. Pick your parents carefully!

The NCs were oddly relieved, reading a news piece reporting on several papers reporting about cancer genetics on the same page as The Biology of Ideology, that while the genetics of ideology is simple, the genetics of cancer is complicated. Three genes may determine whether and how you vote. Malignant cells have tens of mutations in lots of pathways. Cancer is spatially and temporally a multiscale, complex problem. Helps to explain why developing effective treatments for cancer is so challenging. Thankfully, understanding the political choices made by millions of individuals – that’s easy.

 


Brain Teasers
By Charles McGrath, The New York Times, 2008-07-27
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/27/education/edlife/27books.html
Posted: 2008-07-29

The neurocurmudgeons have tried to make you aware of the steady emergence of a literary genre. Charles McGrath's mega-review is a big help in the cause since he has gathered several books into one pot. The basic ingredients of books in this new genre are a hash much of what is known from behavioral, social, and psychological research - tossed with a dash of evolutionary just so stories - and seasoned with some trendy pop culture. The final recipe for success however depends on calling the authors neuroscientists regardless of their expertise and getting the word "brain" into the title. The neuro-public deserves better We are glad our mantra of "we are our brains and our brains are us" is seeping into the NYT. Hopefully the see will reach the brain-science writers. We are also a trifle jealous at the 'writer at large' job-title. But, in the spirit of one good meme deserves another, we will henceforth be known as the neurocurmudgeons at large.

 


The Science of Sarcasm (Not That You Care)
By Dan Hurley, The New York Times, 2008-06-03
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/03/health/research/03sarc.html
Posted: 2008-06-03

Now that the neurojournalists have discovered that sarcasm requires a brain and some learning, the neurocurmudgeons are betting irony is next...

 


Meeting on the Right Side of the Brain
By Elaine Glusac, The New York Times, 2008-04-30
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/30/business/businessspecial/30right.html
Posted: 2008-05-01

Well...more chaff from the genre of use 'brain' to market whatever it is you've got to sell. The neurocurmudgeons don't know about you but even our left brains buzz, glow, light up, and get playfully creative when the chairs are comfy. If we neurocurmudgeons can open a window - our reward circuits ping like a pinball machine on full tilt (oops we might be showing our age with that one). And, our whole brains, even all those subcortical thingys, LOVE those conference places with 24 hour snack stations stocked with gummy bears and mint, malted, milk balls. There is nothing like slouching with a Snickers bar to get the creative juices flowing... We feel the tingle right down our corticospinal tracts and into our fingertips.

 


Doctor: "Ichiro has a very fine prefrontal cortex"
By Brad Lefton, The Seattle Times, 2008-03-19
http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/mariners/2004291330_ichiro19.html

We thank a fellow neurocurmudgeon for bringing this piece to the attention of the Mill. With the price of grain being what it is we appreciate all sources of grist. We just wish we could get some wheat to augment of our steady diet of chaff. Sure, fiber is good for you, but even curmudgeons need sustenance. And it's spring, we'd like to be more cheerful. Funny, this fascination with the PFC - we suspect he has a heck of a cerebellum, too.

  

 


Maternal Instinct Is Wired Into the Brain
By Tara Parker-Pope, New York Times, 2008-03-07
http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/03/07/maternal-instinct-is-wired-into-the-brain/

The neurocurmudgeons are out "scanning" in earnest!  We apologize to those who think the Mill is biased towards chaff over wheat. (Neuro-imagers, pay attention - when you do this study remember to credit us!).   We'd like to claim we just call 'em as we see 'em.  (Hey, another potential study!)  While we are always reluctant to take on motherhood, we couldn't resist commenting on this piece sent in from a loyal spotter.  When, oh when, oh when will neuro-imagers take experience and learning seriously.    Just because you see a response - you don't get to claim its hard-wired.    We're sure our brains will show different patterns of activation from yours when we see our cat, dog, favorite azalea, or whatever as opposed to someone else's.  Wait, shouldn't all these variations be done?   Think how busy we can keep the scanners!  Lot's of practice for budding neuro-scanners. In fact, take some brain scans before they learn how to operate a scanner and then after - bet you'll see different patterns of brain activity when they see their very own scan.  But that's it, we've given out enough free ideas today.  Well, if nothing else the 24/7 cable channels will have plenty of news!  Not to mention serious publications like the NYT.

  

 


Radio Lab: Into the Brain of a Liar
By Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, NPR, 2008-03-06
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=87922568

One of our favorite neurocurmudgeons sent us this link with a plea "please, make it stop"!   If only we could.  To be honest, we do not know where to lay the blame in this case.  First, we are a little surprised that a story in March 2008 is referencing studies from 2005.  This doesn't strike us as having that kind of staying power.  The explanatory link between increased white matter and "liar brains" is speculation by scientists and the reporter is merely a conduit  to a public that must be wearying of the "our brains do it" storyline.  However, since reporters and editors select what to write about we can't let them off the hook.   Of all the neuro-news available (and there is rarely a shortage these days what with talking birds, ape geniuses, and the myriad functional brain imaging differences we can find between any two identifiable populations) someone chose this one.   I mean why not scans of people who do/do not like the Beatles, peanut butter, or milk chocolate?   Bound to have different rain scans.  Sad.   And it makes you wonder.  Why is it always the prefrontal cortex?   And why is it we can't use imaging to figure out if a brain tumor is growing or shrinking ?   But we are confident we can distinguish pathological liars from the merely antisocial personality disordered from the supposed normals who actually volunteered for this study.  Amazing.  Or maybe not.   

  

 


Price Tag Can Change The Way People Experience Wine, Study Shows
Science Daily, 2008-01-31
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080126101053.htm

Did you think the neurocurmudgeons had gone into hibernation?  Well to be honest, we were storing up some energy in anticipation of the Valentine's Day silly season soon to be upon us with all the expected, if increasingly tired "this is your brain on love" stories.    In fact, why haven't our neuro-imaging colleagues asked us to participate in studies of "anticipation" or more trendily "dread".   Hmmm... will it be our anterior cingulate or our amygdala that lights up when we are shown the date February 14 or the dates of the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting?

Anyway, back to today's posting... and we thank our west coast colleagues for shaking us from our winter doldrums.   So we experience more pleasure when we think a wine we are drinking is expensive?  Sure, especially if we are not paying for it.  Or if it is in a nice glass.   Or if the setting is lovely and the company pleasant.   Which explains why the neurocurmudgeons always declare a wine "not bad" and wind up with undrinkable cases of mid-west wine purchased at scenic local wineries on beautiful autumn days! We also derive pleasure when B-school shtick merges with functional imaging to examine statements like "a basic assumption in economics is that a person's "experienced pleasantness" (EP) from consuming a product depends only on its intrinsic properties and the individual's thirst.    So much fun.   And isn't fun what the functional imaging of neuromarketing, or neuroeconomics, or neurodecision making or any neuro-hybrid is all about?   Let's keep the scanners humming!  And the wine flowing! The neurocurmudgeons are bursting with questions!   What "lights up" when you are told an expensive wine is cheap? Or when you think it's a bargain? (Our reward areas practically combust when we find a hot label on the sale rack!).   Let's do some studies where the wine is a gift you received? How about a gift you gave?   Drunk at your wedding?   The wedding of the person you love and someone else? (Maybe someone could do this in time for Valentine's Day?) There is just no end to the fun.

  

 


Stem Cells Used to Treat Disease / Stem-cell research boosts hope for sickle-cell patients
Wall Street Journal, 2007-12-07
http://www.wsj.com (Technology and Health, B6)

For today's posting the neurocurmudgeons ask that you cut us a little slack (and yes, we know this is something we rarely are willing to do for others) because the story is not technically "neurojournalism" although it does contain a passing reference to Parkinson's Disease. However - the "package" from teaser to headline to story serves as a good model of how the way most basic science studies are reported misleads rather than informs the public.

The neurocurmudgeons had just settled down with a freshly brewed cup o' joe and today's WSJ when a section B (Marketplace) teaser headline caught our eye: Stem Cells Used to Treat Disease, Technology and Health B6. Since our second favorite bone to pick is the hyping of stem cell research - we bit. Quickly turning to page 6, we fully expected we might have to eat a little humble pie with our coffee. But...on page B6, it looked like some bets were being hedged because the headline read "Stem-cell research boosts hope for sickle-cell patients." Hmmm. we start to get a little wary when we see "treat disease" morph to "boosting hope." Reading on we find headlined patients morphing into "engineered mice." Needless to say by the final paragraph the language has devolved to the standard "it will take years - and a lot more research - before the transplantation technique can be tried in people." Rightly so - both stem cell research and gene transplantation techniques are fraught with challenges. So is the research important science? Probably, as the research paper is coming out in the prestigious journal Science. Are the paper's findings news? No.

Wasn't it just last week, that Alan Leshner the CEO of AAAS, publisher of Science, cautioned us in a Washington Post op-ed about the need for care when extrapolating from mouse studies to human disease? Incremental basic science reported as news may keep science in the public eye - but we should not kid ourselves that it does anything to increase understanding of how research advances.

  

 


Anorexia visible with brain scans
BBC News, 2007-12-02
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7120564.stm

The neurocurmudgeons thought long and hard before deciding to draw attention to this particular kind of chaff.   Anorexia nervosa is a serious illness with devastating effects on those who suffer from it as well as the impacts it has on an individual's family and friends.   

What disturbed us was the following observation:

"Sophisticated scans have revealed the eating disorder anorexia is linked to specific patterns of brain activity. "    First, we are not quite certain what "sophisticated scans" are -- taking functional brain images requires sophisticated technology, functional imaging studies requires sophisticated experimental design, and interpreting functional brain images requires extremely sophisticated imaging analysis software and even more sophisticated analysis by the humans responsible for the studies.   So we sincerely hope that there are no "unsophisticated scans" out there.    Second, we neurocurmudgeons are almost embarrassed that we have to keep saying this:  every behavior is "linked" to a specific pattern of brain activity.   Anorexia is not an "eating disorder" - neither is gambling a card-playing disorder.    Altered eating behaviors are a manifestation of the disorder.   Overriding the complex biological systems that motivate us to eat must involve a complicated re-calibration of reward and feedback systems. Anorexia is an extremely complex thought disorder manifested via altered behaviors as a prior posting on the BBC makes clear 

In this day and age is it still necessary, as the article seems to imply, to destigmatize a behavior by showing that "it is in the brain"?    I am sure that the individuals suffering from this disorder, the dedicated professionals who work to help them, and the loved ones struggling each day to help however they can didn't need brain scans - sophisticated or otherwise - to tell them that that this is a complex cognitive, emotional, physical - and extremely serious disorder.      We hope the brain scans could somehow improve treatments - but we honestly don't know how they will.   

  

 


Study: Aging brains can benefit from 'training'
By Jon Hamilton, NPR, 2007-11-19
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16411605

This story fulfills one basic criteria for chaff - making a mountain out of a molehill.  Bottom line: Be careful about what it is you want to do and how you spend your time.   

 


This is your brain on politics
The New York Times, 2007-11-11
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/11/opinion/11freedman.html

Just when the neurocurmudgeons were wondering if we could simply award the New York Times a Lifetime Achievement Award for consistently bad coverage of imaging studies of brain/mind science and save ourselves the trouble of having to explain again and again the basic traps its reporters fall into, we were alerted to their latest “neuro-imaging as parlor trick” shtick. This is your brain on politics.  This piece seems to be a NYT specialized category – scientists publishing research results as op-eds. Hard as it might be for us to admit, we might find something to admire in the chutzpah of scientists willing to take science directly to the streets with some verve and a sense of humor. Not in this case. There was no science. There was unidentifiable stuff masquerading as science. Like Ouija boards. Or horoscopes. Happily, we are not the only wet blankets at this party. A list of distinguished neuron-imagers, some even fellow UCLA colleagues of the lead op-eder, said ENUFF! And wrote a protest letter to NYT. Hopefully this will give more scientists the courage to take their colleagues to task when they misrepresent science in public forums. Everyone is entitled to their political punditry. No one is entitled to make up science.  

 


Study finds left-wing brain, right-wing brain
By Denise Gellene, Los Angeles Times, 2007-09-10
http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-sci-politics10sep10,0,5349018.story

The neurocurmudgeons were quite stung recently to read a blog posting that we are indeed curmudgeonly and that we tend to suck the fun out of all the excitement about reporting on the brain.   SO, in an effort to soften our image and let some of the "fun and excitement" of misrepresenting neuroscience to the public go by unremarked, we were not going to post anything, regardless of how silly, on the news stories about UCLA study of conservative versus liberal brains.  But, popular demand by our loyal neurocurmudgeon compatriots has overcome our reluctance.   Need we actually criticize this article?   Or can we just say that reporting on the brain by the LA Times may, just may, usurp the crown of bad neurojournalism from the NY Times Science Times.   We might speculate that proximity to UCLA gives the LA Times an unfair advantage - but we won't.    Rather than merely snipe - we offer a basic primer of brain/behavior.   They are linked.   You are your brain and it is you.   Brain activity probed by whatever psychological or behavioral task a researcher chooses is a reflection of a life time of experience, prior knowledge, context, motivation to perform the task, etc, etc, etc.    Doing the hard work of untangling these relationships is serious science.  Parlour tricks are not and should not be represented as such.    We hate to spoil the fun (ok, we live to spoil the fun) but we are tired of scientists who on the one hand complain that the "public" doesn't understand science and on the other are content to see stories of this kind getting ink.   While in the PR world all ink may be good ink - science may want to adopt a higher standard.  

 


Sleeping Babies' Brains Buzz
By Jeanna Bryner, LiveScience, 2007-09-17
http://www.livescience.com/health/070917_baby_brain.html

Birds do it
Bees do it
Even sleeping little baby brains do it...

The neurocurmudgeons came across this little gem and, dare we say it, we are just abuzz! Why this particular story rose above the general hum is just not obvious to us. Slow news day in Sweden? No new genes for complex behaviors published recently in PNAS? How did this particular report manage to break through? Could it be that neurojournalism brains are always buzzing to find something to write about? So, let's see what we have here. Sleeping babies have active brains. Gee, and all this time we neurocurmudgeons thought baby brains were like light bulbs. You mean when they close their little eyes it doesn't just all go dark? Surely we've had other clues that baby brains are active while babies sleep. SO why is this news? We suppose it is merely to spread a general sense of relief that something is going on inside their little beans. Although "buzzing" seems an unkind description somehow. Back at our hive, the neurocurmudgeons were almost leaning towards giving this story a pass but for this honey of a quote:

"This confirms the concept that talking, singing and rocking the baby is not meaningless as earlier believed, but very good for the baby," Lagercrantz told LiveScience.

Hmmm, how much earlier was this believed? And by whom? No one we know. But, it's sweet to know that moms can sing and baby brains can buzz - and no one is getting hurt.


Chemical tied to disorder in 2 studies
Reuters News Service as reported in the Wall Street Journal page D3, 2007-08-07
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118643930848689746.html

This rather small piece of chaff almost went unnoticed as we neurocurmudgeons perused the paper this morning.  Luckily, the eye-catching headline did its job! We were, of course, anxious to learn the identity of the mysterious "brain chemical."   Sadly, it turned out to be one of the usual suspects - dopamine. The news piece also takes a somewhat odd twist from the headline.  Although hooking us with ADHD - it seems to be about addiction.  There may be a few people (not regular readers of Time, Newsweek, or other popular news magazines) who do not yet recognize dopamine as the brain's "addiction" chemical (can someone help us trace how neurotransmitters came to be called mere chemicals?) - or the "reward" chemical.   Apparently adults with ADHD have decreased activity of dopamine in their brains (sadly, no details are provided about how this was determined).   And adults with ADHD are "more likely" to abuse a variety of substances...most likely because substance abuse raises dopamine levels.   Hang on here - Reuters in packing a lot into a few column inches.  it all seems to come down to addiction and reward.   We neurocurmudgeons wonder why it is so many have to pick harmful rewarding behaviors.  How about charity work?  Might that raise dopamine levels?  The last paragraph mentions very briefly what must be the second of the 2 studies promised by the headline.   MRI was used to study the brain structure of children with and without ADHD - but no mention of chemicals - maybe saving that for filler on another slow news day?   Anyway - we had an extra cup of caffeine.   At best we hoped the caffeine + story would maintain dopamine balance.

 


Donating to Charity is Good for the Brain, According to Study
By Robert Mitchum, Chicago Tribune, 2007-06-15
Link to Article (free registration required)

Hmmm...  So, what is the study saying: this is your brain on charitable giving?   We neurocurmudgeons should be the last to criticize a study on why giving feels good since we earn our livelihood helping to fulfill the charitable impulses of others.    But, we just didn't get that old nucleus accumbens good time feeling when we read this piece.   We also became a bit confused towards the end - a study about the "giving brain" seemed to morph into some weird personal rant.   It may be difficult to believe, but we neurocurmudgeons were concerned about Africa before Ms. Jolie went there.  Really.  We even have the brain scans to prove it!

 



Cockroaches Can Learn -- Like Dogs and Humans
By Tan Ee Lyn, Reuters, 2007-06-13
http://www.reuters.com/article/scienceNews/idUSHKG14533220070613

One of the true neurocurmudgeons and a serious BNJ spotter alerted us to this story (or shall we say non-story) that is inexplicably receiving press attention. We can safely say that this appears to be making a mountain out of mole hill -- or is that mixing in too many metaphors?   For starters, we found the assertion that Pavlovian-style conditioning has only been proven in humans and dogs somewhat surprising.   At the mere slide of the drawer where the can-opener is stored our cats come running.   Are we neuocurmudgeons missing the point - maybe it is not the finding that cockroaches can learn conditioned responses that makes this study newsworthy.  Could it be the discovery that cockroaches can learn to salivate?    At any rate, the emphasis on the piece seems to be about learning, not salivating.  Please, can somebody help us understand?

We were also a bit surprised to read that 'despite the advances in sciences, little is known about the mammalian brain'.   Even we neurocurmudgeons would argue that a fair amount is known about the mammalian brain.  And we might even argue further that one of the things that is known is that mammalian brains are quite different from insect brains.  Still, we wish the study team success in its quest to "find which neuron is actually responsible for this learning." Will there really only be one?

The gist of the story is summed up in this quote: "Sure, cockroaches can remember and learn."    Yep. 

 



Al Gore Has Big Plans
By James Traub, New York Times Magazine, 2007-05-20
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/20/magazine/20wwln-gore-t.html (free registration)

This posting was called to the attention of the neurocurmudgeons by an especially sharp BNJ spotter. We would not have suspected an article on global climate change to drift into BNJ, and to be honest - in the big scheme of how egregiously brain science is misrepresented in the popular press the neurocurmudgeons might have given this brief mention a pass. Still, we encourage Al Gore, who has certainly made a serious commitment to thoroughly learning the science of global climate change issues, to read up more carefully on functional neuroanatomy before joining the "it's not me, it my amygdala" crowd.

...Al Gore attributes influence of TV to amygdala: NYT Magazine, May 20, 2007, A quote: "He says he believes that ideas were given a fair hearing on their merits until television came along and induced a kind of national trance. This is a hoary line of argument, but Gore adds a novel neuropsychological twist, explaining that the brain's fear center, the amygdala -"which as I'm sure you know comes from the Latin for 'almond' " - receives only a trickle of electrical impulses from the neocortex, the seat of reasoning, while sending back a torrent of data in return. This explains why "we respond to spiders and snakes and claws and fire, but we are less likely to feel urgency and alarm if the threat to our species is perceptible only by connecting a lot of dots to make up a complex pattern that has to be interpreted by the reasoning center of the brain" - well, it's quite a challenge for the explainer.

 



Why Do Most 16-Year-Olds Drive Like They're Missing a Part of Their Brain?
Allstate Advertisement, A22, Wall Street Journal, 2007-05-17

Further proof that the increasing use of brain images in the popular media is bad for you: While perusing the WSJ this AM, the neurocurmudgeons spied a brain "car"toon that almost had us choking on our mochachinos!   Should we get a neurolawyer?   After all, we could have been rendered hypoxic with irreversible harm done to our hippocampal neurons!    The image that caught our eye and made us catch our breath was a brain with a car-shaped hole in the frontal cortex. It was part of an ad for Allstate.   Yep, Allstate wants you to know that your 16-year-old is a bad driver because they have a car-shaped hole in their brain.   And not just in any part of the brain - the ad goes on to use four words we NEVER thought we'd see in an advertisement.  Can you say dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex?   The ad goes on to tell us that 16-year-olds crash more than 17-year-olds who crash more than 18-year-olds.  Is it only because their brains are still maturing?  Think experience might play a role here?   Remember that pesky experience-dependent thing that shapes our brains?   We certainly do not intent to make light of teen accident rates.   Teens and cars are serious business - and this BNJ posting is not meant to make light of the need to give teens an opportunity to develop the skills they need to drive safely.   We do agree that driving is an acquired skill requiring experience.   We applaud efforts to let teens acquire the needed skill and experience.   Our concern is with the blithe reference to brain development and the role the DLPFC plays in decision-making, problem solving, and understanding future consequences of actions.   It was not too many years ago that 16-year-olds were considered adults and often had to make and live with the consequences of very serious decisions.   Just because we have extended adolescence into our 30's (so boomer parents can call themselves "young" in their 60's) so that we are reluctant to let teens cross a two-lane street by themselves is no reason to blame their brains for not being mature.   It's all about experience.   Come'on Allstate - let's keep neuroscience in better hands.

 



Scientists Draw Link Between Morality and Brain's Wiring
By Robert Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal - Science Journal
http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB117884235401499300-lMyQjAxMDE3NzE4MTgxNDEyWj.html

The neurocurmudgeons can not solve this puzzle:  Why is much of the science/medicine/technology reporting in the Wall Street Journal of high quality EXCEPT for the column written specifically about science?  Or is it only the writing about mind/brain that is so particularly awful?  We'd love to hear from other field-curmudgeons what they think about the quality of science in WSJ's Science Journal.   Today's column "Scientists Draw Link Between Morality and Brain's Wiring" by Robert Lee Hotz might just take the BNJ cake this far in 2007.   A disturbing aspect is the fostering of a new brand of dualism - a persistent and insidious reinforcement that somehow we have 2 minds in one brain.   The entire piece from beginning to end is maddening (and the reasons why need not be repeated as we have written it often enough - take a scroll through the BNJ archives if you don't get it).   The two sentences below serve as examples of the very fundamental errors inherent in this line of thinking

1. "... Many dilemmas force a choice between the lesser of two evils, invoking a clash of competing neural networks..."   it may be helpful for some people to think of your brain as some version of Dr. Dolittle's pushme-pullyou.   But we are having a hard time figuring this out what this means.   This supposed war between some rational (and apparently shaped by learning) brain and some emotional hard-wired brain is not based on neuroscience.    The brain learns - sure there biological underpinnings of the nature of the computations - but networks are shaped by experiences.

2. "  ...Decisions hinge on family, cultural heritage, legal traditions and religious beliefs - or on the kind of brain you can bring to bear on the problem".   Again, we are completely mystified by the "or".   The "kind" of brain you bring to any problem just happens to be the sum total of your experience, learning, culture, the present context, etc.   We have met our brain - and it is us.

There is also an important distinction between what someone says when confronted with the moral dilemmas used in research studies (shaped in part by learned conventions) and what someone does when faced with a real situation in a real context. 

 



The Five Biggest Neuroscience Developments of the Year
By William Saletan, Slate.com
http://www.slate.com/id/2164996/

Well, we're going to risk groans and say - we think Slate drew a blank on it's recent list of the 5 top neuroscience developments of the year. We also must admit that we have no idea what "neuroculture" is - aside from very scary. #1 Mind reading: We neurocurmudgeons are as crazy about technology as anyone, but we have to admit we sometimes wish fMRI had never been invented. The sheer amount of neuro-silliness imaging studies have generated astounds us. We get so weary criticizing the "Gee Whiz - look what's happening in the brain" brand of experiments. It's all about the task, stupid. Most mothers can tell what you're thinking just by looking at you with better than 70% accuracy.

#2 Moral alteration: See #1.

#3 Medicalization of sexuality: The neurocurmudgeons have no doubt that sexuality involves the brain. But maybe Slate should pick up some old developmental biology textbooks. Really, trust us, this is NOT a new finding.

#4 Brain states: What could be more terrifying that to be "buried alive in their skulls." Brain injury and diagnosis of altered states of consciousness is a serious, serious problem that causes enormous anguish for families and doctors. Better diagnostics and prognostics are needed and are being actively pursued and have been for decades. To declare that "vegetative consciousness" has been "discovered" is sensationalism, not neuroscience, pure and simple.

#5 AI: Yep, computers compute.

 



Brain May Hold Key to Killing Impulse
By Kathryn Barrett, WVEC.com
http://www.wvec.com/news/health/stories/wvec_medical_041807_brain.20b9dc47.html

Brain Damage Makes Moral Quandaries Simpler
MSNBC.com
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17739351/

We extend our heartfelt sympathies to the families and friends of those who lost loved ones in the terrible event at Virginia Tech. This horrible crime deeply touches everyone.

However, we are also appalled at the way brain scientists are rushing to offer explanations for this tragedy . It is inexcusable self-promotion.
It is time for the brain science community to have serious discussions about what the motivations that drive some members of our community to make the wild extrapolations evidenced in the two examples posted below .Are claims such as these rooted in shameless self promotion or are these scientists unaware of the limitations of their own work? Why do those within the community who are aghast at the statements stand quietly by, complicit in their silence? .

We must admit that even we, known for our outspokenness on these issues, found ourselves reluctant to post on BNJ . We thought that to be critical at this time of tradjedy was inappropriate. But then we realized our reluctance was a symptom of the problem. Bad science and bad science journalism will not result in better policies, nor will pseudo-explanations provide solace to grieving families. The nation deserves better from scientists and journalists.

The two postings below represent the tip of the iceberg of what is appearing on television and in print. Let's be this honest: Brain science can not and should not try to explain this tragedy.

http://www.wvec.com/news/health/stories/wvec_medical_041807_brain.20b9dc47.html
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17739351/

 



Some sweet news: Chocolate could be good for your memory 
By Carl T. Hall San Francisco Chronicle Monday February 19, 2007 Page 1

In a spirit of full disclosure: we neuron-curmudgeons love chocolate. We also attended the AAAS meeting inspiring this bit of neurojournalism and witnessed the enthusiastic audience. We know that picking on this piece of cute science seems particularly churlish. Still, we have an obligation. And we just can't help ourselves. If only we had resisted that piece of chocolate we ate just prior to reading the newspaper - we might have forgotten that we wanted to post it a good example of bad neurojournalism.

So here are a few of the reasons we think generating enthusiasm for science is not quite the same as engendering understanding of science.

By the end I had no idea what I was reading about. The headline led me to believe this was an article about chocolate and memory. By the final paragraph the topic seemed to have shifted to blood flow and public health. But hey, science is fun and chocolate is good for you. Mission accomplished.




Is It Love or Mental Illness? They're Closer Than You Think 
By Tara Parker Pope Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2007

We hoped it wouldn't happen. Just the other day we neurocurmudgeons glanced at the calendar and sighed. Time for newspapers to run their "This Is Your Brain On Love" pieces. Despite what you may think, we neurocurmudgeons are romantics. We think love is more complicated than a "chemical storm" as described in the Feb 13 WSJ in Tara Parker-Pope's health column equating love with mental illness. We hoped journalists would resist. They didn't. Blame it on dopamine. They run 'em. We read 'em. It's a vicious cycle of reinforcement (or reward, or motivation, or addiction, or an obsession, maybe a compulsion, wait, it's novelty detection, or ...).    Yep, like last year, and the the years before neurojournalists and neuroscientists just keep looking for love in all the wrong places.




This Is Your Brain on a Strong Brand: MRIs Show Even Insurers Can Excite
By Kevin Helliker  Page B1 Wall Street Journal, November 28, 2006
November 29, 2006
http://www.nytimes.com/learning/teachers/lessons/20031028tuesday.html http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/2191394.stm http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn8535&feedId=online-news_rss20

Well, the neurocurmudgeons were almost caught napping (too much Thanksgiving serotonin?) thinking that the silly season of neurojournalism would slow following the flurry of inevitable activity generated by the annual Society for Neuroscience brainfest.   Luckily this piece caught our eye- This Is Your Brain on a Strong Brand: MRIs Show Even Insurers Can Excite by Kevin Helliker  Page B1 Wall Street Journal Nov 28, 2006 This small story meets most of the bad neurojournalism criteria - in fact it even comes with its own caution that the study involved a small number of subjects and the data is unpublished.   We neurocurmudgeons hate to quibble (Ok OK , we live to quibble) - but we thought the claim that the study inspiring the story "is the first ever the first ever to use magnetic resonance imaging to study the impact of brand recognition on brains" a bit odd.   We thought this kind of study was essentially a BRAND of what is often called neuro-marketing.   Sure enough - a quick google made us feel better http://www.nytimes.com/learning/teachers/lessons/20031028tuesday.html http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/2191394.stm http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn8535&feedId=online-news_rss20

Well, maybe it's just us, but we can't help wondering if the functional brain imaging patterns that indicate we find Volkswagons and insurance companies equally emotially exciting might not be tapping into something else - maybe it has something to do with learned familarity?   Ah, we  know - that wouldn't be any fun...

 

 



Music training boosts the brain - BBC News
US study finds fear on-off switch in brain - Reuters.uk
Creepy "Shadow Person" Effect Conjured by Brain Shocks - National Geographic
September 20, 2006

The neurocurmudgeons can barely keep up with the flurry of news stories out today meeting the BNJ criteria.

Music training boosts the brain Link
US study finds fear on-off switch in brain Link
Creepy "Shadow Person" Effect Conjured by Brain Shocks Link

 



Study: No 'God Spot' in the Brain
By Ker Than, August 30, 2006, MSNBC.com (originally published in LiveScience.com)
http://msnbc.msn.com/id/14587036

We are not sure if we should post our latest favorite as bad, sad, or just plain mad neurojournalism. This comes to us from a faithful BNJ spotter. Well, we've reached a novel low when a study contradicting a prior study looking for the "god spot" makes the news. Maybe, just maybe, journalists will take about 10 minutes to understand what you can and can not measure with functional imaging. Then we neurocurmdgeons will be spared having to read these kinds of stories. The nuns, meditating monks, and whirling dervishes can relinquish their scanner time to graduate students. And the journalists can spend more energy making geneticists crazy.

 



Eyesight Hopes
May 15, 2006, The Times (London)
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-2180914.html

This short piece from the The Times (London) caused the Associate Editor of Nature Neuroscience to alert the neurocurmudgeons - and we agree - we just can't turn a blind eye to this one. There is nothing wrong with optimism and hope - but the press should be aware of the desperate need of indivduals who can not always appreciate the wide gap yawning between laboratory finding and clinical reality.

Our esteemed AE send this note: Short as it is, this one fulfills two of your criteria - it seriously misrepresents the original science and wildly extrapolates. The paper (Yin et al., Nat Neurosci 2006, doi:10.1038/nn1701) says absolutely nothing about "reversal of blindness caused by glaucoma, tumours or traumatic injury". This grossly misleading message prompted a desperate father to contact us about this supposed miracle cure.

 



Holding Loved One's Hand Can Calm Jittery Neurons
By: Benedict Carey January 31, 2006, New York Times
Link to Article

This little love note to marriage, hand-holding, and functional imaging is just the thing to put cognitive neuroscientists in the warm and fuzzy mood of Valentine's Day. And while we are crazy about love and always glad to have a hand to hold - we just wouldn't live up to our reputation as hard-hearted neuro-curmudgeons if we didn't borrow Cupid's bow and take a shot at this one.

While we will not quibble that holding the hand of the one with whom you have a deep, loving commitment can make you less anxious, we are not quite ready to take a full lover's leap over this finding as this fan: " ‘This is very imaginative, cutting-edge science, linking this complex response to stress to different areas of the brain,’ said Dr. Ronald Glaser, director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State University, who was not involved in the study.”

Imaginative? Okay, you do have to have an imagination to see this as science. But cutting edge? Guess it depends on where you draw the line. We do suggest a follow-up: what happens when you offer the women wine, roses, and chocolate?

 



When Bad People Are Punished, Men Smile (but Women Don't)
By: Elisabeth Rosenthal (originally published in the New York Times)
http://www.financialexpress.com/fe_full_story.php?content_id=115285

When Bad Neurojournalism is Published, Careful Scientists Cringe (but Less Careful Scientists Don’t)

Perhaps our empathy centers were daydreaming (and therefore didn't quietly glow as we read this story) but we certainly smiled as we considered exacting revenge – of a sort – for being tricked into reading yet another drop in the bad neurojournalism bucket overflowing with articles like this one that consistently misrepresent what brain images can and can not tell us about complex behavioral states. And at the risk of seeming petty (and inspiring more imaging studies) – we must say that as poetic as it might sound – brains don't glow.



Cells That Read Minds
By Sandra Blakeslee January 18, 2006, The New York Times
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/10/science/10mirr.html?incamp=article_popular

By the time we finished reading this article our mirror neurons were firing on all cylinders and were so over stimulated that we weren't sure if we should

1) shake, rattle, and roll
2) bang a gong and get it on
3) walk like an egyptian
4) or be the wind beneath your wings

And then... we remembered our Neuro 101! - Neurons don't actually sing or dance or think or feel - individual neurons - even super-duper mirror neurons - either fire action potentials or they don't. Now we know that writing about neurons like they are little people with their own thoughts and actions pulling the strings that make we people-puppets do what we do is just a journalistic invention - still it makes us a little squemish. Wait...could it be these feelings are simply the jealous reactions of our squirm neurons? Well, maybe when everyone else understands it - so will we.



Timid Mice Made Daring by Removing One Gene
By Benedict Carey November 18, 2005, The New York Times
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/18/science/18brave.html?emc=eta1

This was sent to us by one of our regular bad neurojournalism spotters -

Message from sender:
Given that almost every brain protein targeted by either a drug or genetic modification alters behavior why is this surprising? Perhaps the researchers have already found a drug to inhibit their own natural habituation response to previous scientific findings in the area.


Study: Mice Sing Mating Song
November 3, 2005, CNN
http://www.cnn.com/2005/TECH/science/11/01/singing.mice.ap/index.html

Ah, Mr Mouse, your kingdom for a song?

ok, so the male mouse produces some kind of high frequency squeaking. Is this a song? Is not a song somewhat in the ear of the be-hearer? We (humans) might perceive these mouse warblings as something along the lines of a song - but do mice have the concpet of "song". Oh well, a harmless piece. Except, wait a second, what's going on deep in the story - around the ninth paragraph? "The finding opens the possibility of using mice to study and develop treatments for autism and other communication disorders", said Holy, the lead author and assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the university's medical school. A bit of a leap, that. Not quite sure where that extrapolation (or shall we say improvisation to keep with the musical theme) came from - besides the blue. Sounds more like a siren's song to us. But read the story yourself. Just be careful. Be very, very careful.


Mind Over Moods: This is your brain on PMS
October 28, 2005, Discover
http://www.discover.com/web-exclusives/pms-brain-imaging-moods/

Your brain on PMS?

Aw, come on! Give us girls a break! We predicted this would happen - million dollar MR scanners reduced to being the mood rings of the 21st century. But wait a minute - the picture caption refers to PMS. But the actual scientific paper (in the prestigious PNAS, no less) states the study was carried out "Using functional magnetic resonance imaging in female subjects without premenstrual mood symptoms." But that means no PMS. So is this about PMS or not? Hurry, get us to the scanner - maybe we can image how hormones influence the confusion induced while reading bad neurojournalism! Maybe we could be in Discover! Or at least PNAS...


The Male Condition
By SIMON BARON-COHEN, August 8, 2005 New York Times

This is a first for bad neuro-journalism postings – our new favorite is not a news story by a reporter but an op-ed piece written by a distinguished scientist. We think it odd that the presentation of a very complex line of scientific arguments about rather complicated issues would appear on the opinions page of a daily newspaper. Of course, Baron-Cohen has a right to express his opinion - but then so do we. Autism is a terrible condition and we need to be bringing our most thoughtful science to help us understand it. We just didn’t see how this op-ed contributed to an understanding. We thought this piece simply muddied the waters.

The main complaints we have with this op-ed concern the gender issues:

First – we really do wish serious individuals would stop repeating Larry Summer’s error. The question of why more men then women occupy the top positions in academic science departments can not, nor will it ever be, answered with biology. In this instance anatomy is simply not destiny – either for individuals or for a group. There is no use even talking about biological differences for they do not matter. The benchmarks by which we determine academic success are artificial socio-cultural constructions. One could (and we do) imagine any number of ways that one could design academic career paths and assign value to academic contributions that would select for varying combinations of skills, experience, personality, and sex. Literary device or not – we are surprised Baron –Cohen chose to beat this particular dead horse. Enough.

Second - acknowledging that our brains, at any moment in time, are the product of our biology, environment, and experiences and then proceeding to ignore this reality in order to defend one’s thesis simply will not do. Read Virginia Valian - http://maxweber.hunter.cuny.edu/psych/faculty/valian/valian.htm#contents . The first thing we have to know about an infant is whether it is a boy or a girl. And from that moment the baby is treated differently, judged differently, viewed differently. We really might want to entangle the vast web of social influences on behavior and brain development before we start invoking biological explanations.

Third – men systematize? Women empathize? We’re struggling here. Help us out – we’d like to understand the systematic thinking that leads out-of-shape overweight males to jog in public parks without shirts on hot summer days. Women try – ok, so it is hot – but as we dodge their flying perspiration we really do lack empathy. Sorry.


Watching New Love as It Sears the Brain
By Benedict Carey, May 31, 2005
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/31/health/psychology/31love.html

We're not quite sure what to say about this, but then again, we weren't sure what to say five years ago, either - see "Looking for That Brain Wave Called Love: Humanities Experts Use MRI's to Scan the Mind for the Locus of the Finer Feelings" by Emily Eakin, a bad neurojournalism posting from October, 2000. Why in the world would scientists and bad neuro-journalists get so turned on about love 'activating' brain systems implicated in everything from thirst and hunger to addiction and gambling? Someone's not listening to their country music! We still think that neuro-journalists are looking for love in all the wrong places, but we would LOVE to have some of whatever is intoxicating the scientists responsible for this study!


Learn More About the Cognitive Paparazzi!
March 21, 2005

In her March 18, 2005 Wall Street Journal science journal column "While Brain Imaging Offers New Knowledge, It Can Be an Illusion," journalist Sharon Begley makes several references to the "cognitive paparazzi." She also includes quotes from psychologists Frank Keil and Liz Phelps, as well as the Foundation's Vice President Susan Fitzpatrick whom, she states, "helped organize a forum on neuroimaging last month for the American Association for the Advancement of Science."

We at the Foundation agree with many of Begley's observations regarding the pitfalls of neuroimaging. Of course, this shouldn't be all that surprising since the ideas, individuals, and phrases she includes appear to be largely drawn from the AAAS session she mentions only in passing. The title of that session - "Brain Imaging and the 'Cognitive Paparazzi': Viewing Snapshots of Mental Life Out of Context" - is mysteriously absent from the WSJ piece, as was the information that Keil and Phelps were speakers at that session, as was any acknowledgement that the phrase "cognitive paparazzi" was, in fact, coined by Fitzpatrick. As co-organizers of the AAAS session, both Susan Fitzpatrick and her JSMF colleague Ellen Landers engaged in several rather detailed discussions with Begley about the session and the concerns that prompted it. The full session description as posted on the AAAS website can be found here.

Although both Fitzpatrick and Landers wondered about how the session would be portrayed in Begley's piece, they never imagined that the session and the ideas behind it would receive so little credit, especially given that these seem to have served as a fairly significant source of inspiration for the column in which they would go almost entirely unmentioned. Less concerned with receiving personal credit than with ensuring respect for intellectual property, Susan Fitzpatrick has written a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal.

The last line of that letter pretty much says it all: "Perhaps there are times when a journalist revealing her sources is the right thing to do."


How babies become addicted to their mothers
3 July 2004, page 12, New Scientist

We admit it's been a while since our last posting - this should not be taken as an indication that bad neurojournalism is on the wane. Rather - the standard has fallen so low that it is hard for a piece to stand out as a particularly BAD piece of neurojournalism. We only hope other topics in science journalism are not as dismal as articles focused on mind/brain. A recent story did catch our eye for meeting many of our criteria, particularly that of unbridled extrapolation. The report on the opiate receptor deficient mice that don't squeak (or "shriek" as one news story called it - does a baby mouse actually shriek?) captured a lot of press attention - with almost everyone alluding to maternal bonding and the causes of autism. Unfortunately, one of the most overblown pieces we read was in New Scientist - a magazine supposedly geared to the science savvy- titled " How babies become addicted to their mothers" (3 July 2004, page 12). Maybe, just maybe, we'd want to wait until we understand what is going on in the baby mice before we speculate about "the basis of all social behavior in adulthood?"

Savant for a Day
By Lawrence Osborne, June 22, 2003, New York T


imes
Late Edition - Final , Section 6 , Page 38 , Column 1
http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/22/magazine/22SAVANT.html (registration required)

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the lab! The TMS technology that first came to our attention promising the oxymoronic "virtual lesion" may also be just the thing to improve your ability to draw a dog. Reminds us of all those old schticky jokes that always begin with the patient waking up from some procedure and asking the doctor if they can play the piano (or whatever) and the punch line being "Oh good, I couldn't before!" If you never were very good at playing the harpsicord or you're still waiting for your daydreams to become that first novel - a little zap may be all it takes to get you on the road to genius, happiness, and fulfillment!


How Humans React When Bad Things Occur Again and Again
By Sharon Begley, February 7, 2003, Wall Street Journal

We apologize for the time between postings growing longer. The prevalence of pop-neuroscience and pop-psychology in journalism makes it difficult to single out particular examples. BUT-the February 7 WSJ column, "How Humans React When Bad Things Occur Again and Again" by Sharon Begley shook us right out of our doldrums. Let's say we accept Ms Begley's assertion that the national reaction to the tragic loss of the shuttle Columbia was blunted, although I am not convinced that we should. Will we also buy her explanation that the nation's muted response was due to something neuroscientists and psychologists call habituation?

Habituation is a real phenomenon and the term has a specific meaning within neuroscience and psychology. The term is usually invoked to explain why an organism's response to repeated stimuli decreases over time. Habituation could explain why, after a certain period of exposure, we tend not to notice a room's ticking clock. Habituation can even explain why we stop noticing the watch on our wrist or the ring on our finger. So, as a nation, have we habituated to disasters-three over an 18-year period (Challenger, 9/11/, and Columbia)-as Ms. Begley suggests? Does our supposed lack of response indicate a "hardening of the heart that speaks ill of us as human beings?" No. Unfortunately, Ms. Begley can not just reach into the neuroscience grab bag to find a handy scientific hook on which to hang her personal opinions. The extremely complicated set of variables that influence how we, as individuals, react or do not react to tragic news is not simple habituation. It is inexplicable why a journalist writing about science in a prestigious newspaper would ever conceive of reducing complex human emotions and behavior to the same mechanism that causes a snail to stop withdrawing into its shell after repeated sensory stimulation. Perhaps this article was just what we needed to get us going again. And that response is something Ms. Begley might call sensitization. Hopefully she won't.


A Dr. Dolittle approach to brain studies
By Faye Flam, Posted on Tue, Apr. 23, 2002

All we can say is: read it for yourself. Perhaps the reigning trend of “do-little” will someday yield to “think-more?”

http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/mld/ledgerenquirer/news/3120467.htm

  • Do dogs know who they are?
  • Do nest-robbing jays follow a plan?
  • Do any animals have a sense of self?

Scientists are pondering these and other questions about how animals think, hoping to understand just how animal consciousness and self-awareness differ from our own. Eventually, the researchers hope to gain insight into how consciousness emerges from the human brain.

It might seem evident that many mammals are conscious - that they have feelings and thought, in their own animal ways. But over the course of history, philosophers and scientists have argued otherwise, declaring them as mindless and predictable as robots.

Now, however, a new crop of scientists are trying to get into the minds of animals.

"The basic question with which we're concerned is, what is it like to be another animal?" said University of Colorado biologist Marc Bekoff, who spoke at a recent Rutgers University conference, "Self and Consciousness: Roots of Humanity?"

Scientists in recent years devised a test to see if animals have self-awareness, the "red dot" test, said Bekoff, who studied gorillas in Africa with Jane Goodall and whose new book, Minding Animals, was published this year.

In a "red dot" test, a scientist would stick a spot on the forehead of an animal and put him in front of a mirror. If the animal noticed the dot, it indicated he was self-aware. While the test has been applied to dozens of chimpanzees, only four appeared to notice the dot, reaching up to touch it. A similar test with dolphins showed them to be more self-aware.

But Bekoff said he saw no reason why this test should be the gold standard for all animal self-awareness. Dogs, he said, recognize scent and, as dog owners have observed, can distinguish the scent of their own urine from that of other dogs. That, he said, shows that dogs have some sense of themselves as separate from other dogs.

Bekoff decided to be the first to scientifically document this familiar occurrence through his "yellow snow" test. He applied the test to his own dog, Jethro, a rottweiler/German shepherd.

"Over five winters I walked behind Jethro and scooped up his yellow snow," Bekoff said. He moved the snow, along with yellow snow from other dogs. "It took five winters to get all the data," he said. "It was a labor of love."

In the end, predictably, Jethro urinated on top of the yellow snow from other dogs, and recognized his own yellow snow, which he sniffed and left alone. Bekoff published his findings last year in the journal Behavioral Processes.

Bekoff said the test showed Jethro shared at least some aspects of self-awareness with humans: a very basic sense of "bodyness" - the feeling of possessing one's own body. This, he believes, mammals, birds and perhaps reptiles and fish all share. Then comes a sense of "mineness" - the sense his dog has of my bone, my home, my territory, my leg, he said.

What animals may lack, he said, is the sense of "I-ness" - the very un-apelike sense expressed by Tarzan: "Me Tarzan, you Jane." Such a thought may be unique to human beings.

Another aspect of human consciousness that the scientists now suspect animals share is called "theory of mind" - the ability to use their own experience to predict the experience of others.

Sympathy depends on this, as does lying or otherwise employing trickery. Biologist Dorothy Cheney of the University of Pennsylvania, author of How Monkeys See the World, cited work showing that bluejays may have the same ability.

Some jays steal seeds from other birds, while other jays try to make an honest living gathering their own, she said. Researchers set up a situation in which the birds would be watched by other birds while storing their seeds.

They found only the birds that were known robbers would move the seeds if they were being watched, presumably fearing they would be robbed. The honest birds appeared to assume the onlookers would also be honest.

Attributing such a thought process to birds would be considered anthropomorphic, but Cheney said it was hard to explain this behavior any other way.

While Cheney highlighted the similarities of animal and human thought, Merlin Donald of Queens College focused on the differences.

Donald believes that in three giant steps, humans became "superconscious," with certain parts of our brains growing massive compared with those of our primate relatives. Those parts are involved in learning, working memory, imitation, social cognition - "functions thought of as very conscious," Donald said.

The first leap happened two million years ago, he said, with the emergence of the adept, tool-using proto-human called Homo habilis. At that point, brain size nearly doubled and our ancestors became much more skilled at making tools.

Donald suggests that at that point humanoids acquired kinematic imagination - the ability to picture themselves throwing a spear or performing some other task - and that to accommodate this newfound ability, they needed more brain capacity.

The second transition happened just a half-million years ago, when brain size increased again to its present size. This change may have coincided with the ability to use language.

We are now in the middle of a third transition, he said, which came with the advent of writing and other ways to store symbols externally. This one is a little harder to understand since we are still experiencing it, Donald said.

How it ends up is yet to be seen, but Donald is convinced that it will change the way it feels to be human.


Brain Cells; The Mind's Decline is No Longer a Given

This one almost got away in the holiday hubbub – but it’s too good to pass up. “Brain Cells: The Mind’s Decline Is No Longer a Given” by Ronald Kotulak (Chicago Tribune, November 25, 2001, page C1) puts forward a dizzying array of scientific findings all “stemming” (pun intended) from research indicating that the adult mammalian brain retains the ability to generate new neurons. Describing the finding that adult brains might generate new neurons as an “amazing new power of the brain” is a bit like saying Columbus “discovered” America. The North American land mass was here prior to Columbus bumping into it. And guess what? - if mammalian brains are generating neurons throughout life there is a strong likelihood that they’ve been doing it for a long time. If neurogenesis occurs in adult human brains, it may be news to neuroscientists, but for our brains it’s probably business as usual.

The suggestion that we should all buy running shoes to keep our intellects intact as we age also seems, to us, to stretch the data just a bit. We are leery of results touting “increased” rates of neurogenesis in rodents given the opportunity to run in a wheel when the comparison group is their cage bound, sedentary brethren. Until someone measures neurogenic rates in the brains of New York City sewer rats, we’re suspending judgement.

We are relieved to read in the popular press that when it comes to environmental influences on our brain-power neuroscientists are no longer saying it’s all over by age three – a stance we recall reading in Mr. Kotulak’s writings a few years ago.

As to the effects of stress on our brains… Oops, we forgot what we were going to write! We may just have to refrain from reading popular neurojournalism while we still have some hippocampal grey matter left! Never mind going for a walk - we’ve taken up triathlon training, but we fear even that level of activity may not be enough to counteract the damage!

We know, we know…where’s the harm? If people start moving around more because they think it could be good for their brains isn’t that a good thing? Unfortunately there are lots of good reasons why people should exercise more and yet, still many don’t. It’s unlikely the chance of increasing neurogenesis is going to be the key to that behavioral lock. Why attempt to stretch some basic neuroscience findings we don’t really quite understand into “news you can use”?


Chess brains take it easy by Ivan Noble

Talk about surprise –can you imagine our surprise hearing the radio news piece about how chess masters playing chess use different parts of their brains then novices playing chess? This is news? The use of chess players in the study of expertise is almost a cliché! So chess masters playing chess use a different part of their brain than the novices playing chess. And why not? Cognitively and behaviorally these two groups of subjects are doing something different! And it might be anticipated that different behaviors derive from different patterns of brain activity. If we can borrow a cliché of our own – the study design used here is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Yep, they’re different. No big surprise. So why was the senior author quoted as saying “We were very surprised by the results”? Wouldn’t have been if they had read John Anderson’s and many other cognitive psychologists’ research on skill learning, expertise, chunking, etc.? In a 1995 review John Anderson explicitly addresses the question “What is the difference between a chess master and a chess novice?” I find it more likely that the researchers knew what to expect from this study based on what is already known in the literature. And that could have made an interesting story about how experiments are initiated and planned.

So, did we find anything surprising? Well, we’re a bit surprised that the study inspiring the news piece was published in Nature (Pattern of focal gamma-bursts in chess players by Amidzic et al., Nature August 9, 2001). In an editorial in April, 2001, Nature’s sister publication Nature Neuroscience stated “To be published in Nature Neuroscience…research should be hypothesis-driven; for imaging studies, this means asking questions like “Is the hippocampus involved in the retrireview of episodic memories?” rather than “What happens in the brain when subjects play chess?”. Perhaps the editors at Nature Neuroscience should challenge their colleagues at Nature to up their standards a bit.


"Are Teens Just Wired That Way? Researchers Theorize Brain Changes Are Linked to Behavior"(Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post, June 5 2001)

Our current favorite might more accurately be labeled 'sad' rather than 'bad' neurojournalism. "Are Teens Just Wired That Way? Researchers Theorize Brain Changes Are Linked to Behavior " by Shankar Vedantam does not grossly misrepresent the science or seriously misstate or misinterpret the published results. (We are guessing the results are published - hard to tell from the article.)

 

So why does it merit a posting? It is fair to say that this piece fills our criteria of highlighting research findings of dubious value to the public at large. Based on the lead scientist's quotes, it seems he would most likely agree with us on this point - raising the question of just why he's talking to a Washington Post reporter. If you have a teenager maddenly lying about on the couch as you, the grown-up with fully functioning frontal lobes, shoulder the responsibilities of adult life I imagine you might take some small comfort in knowing scientists are out there studiously working on the biological basis of this cultural phenomenon we call adolescence.

 

In style, the article doggedly adheres to that annoying formula of covering a non-finding that touches on a reigning psycho-trend by stringing expert quotes together with "stuff". (To show how unbiased we are, some of the strung-along-expert-quotes are provided by our own esteemed President, John Bruer. We happen to think what he says makes sense, but when jumbled into the mosh pit of neurojournalism, how would anyone else determine that?).

 

The article starts with a whimper and ends in a fog - read it, don't read it - it will not alter yours or anyone elses understanding of how scientific research gets done, how we know what we know, or what it is that for many reasons we don't know. Perhaps the only meaningful message could be reinforcing how foolish trying to leap the chasm from brain to behavior is right now.

 

In many ways, articles of this type are more dangerous than those that outrageously overblow the science - this one just injects a little more noise into the background hum of oversimplification. As soon as we can line up some willing collaborators we propose to study the brains of the editors who let this stuff through...


 

Study Says Jet Lag Shrinks Brain

Susan Okie (The Washington Post, May 21st, 2001)

We're sorry we haven't posted anything new in a while. It certainly
hasn't been for lack of material as regular readers of NewsWeek and Time
are well aware. The truth...we've been travelling alot and well...we
forgot!


WOMEN USE MORE OF BRAIN WHEN LISTENING, STUDY SAYS by Robert Lee Hotz (LA Times, November 29, 2000)

Our newest favorite bad neurojournalism pieces are inspired by a University of Indiana study reported at the Radiological Society of North America meeting in Chicago.  The study, showing differing patterns of brain images acquired from men and women listening to a reading of a John Grisham novel (we are not making this up! But then again maybe we are, since the study has not been published we have no idea what it actually entails!), is garnering all sorts of media attention providing further evidence that ANY report of gender differences causes reporters to snap to attention!  Here is the essence of the finding as described by the news media.  Each time we think that we have seen the silliest brain imaging story - someone manages to come up with a new one! The pieces in the LA times manage to fill most of our criteria: they cover science of dubious value (not quite certain that the reported study tells us about ANYTHING since there are endless interpretations that could explain the finding as covered by the press); they report a finding out of context (this is hardly the first study looking at gender differences and aspects of language processing), and they extrapolate WILDLY from the findings (surely the researchers can not be saying that this study indicates that women listen better than men?).  We will not even go into our usual rant of the difficulty of interpreting fMRI results and why the media should avoid reporting on these kinds of findings.

If only we could scan the brains of science writers when they are writing this kind of nonsense and compare it to the brain scans of neuroscientists when they have to read it! Now that might make an interesting story!


Looking for That Brain Wave Called Love: Humanities Experts Use MRI's to Scan the Mind for the Locus of the Finer Feelings by Emily Eakin (NY Times, p. B11, October 28, 2000).  

We are not quite sure what to say about "Looking for That Brain Wave Called Love: Humanities Experts Use MRI's to Scan the Mind for the Locus of the Finer Feelings". Maybe neurojournalists are lookin' for love (and stories) in all the wrong places? We know what you are thinking, why do those neuro-curmudgeons have to jump all over everything? We know this was supposed to be a lighthearted look at brain imaging. And we know you are asking: Who does it harm to think that romantic love or moral reasoning is "found" is some part of the brain?

Well, we think it hurts the public to be continually fed this junk.   The research described in this piece in pure unadulterated silliness.  As taxpayers we hope not one dime of federal research support was expended on this nonsense!  It is one thing for scientists to push the boundaries and to take on difficult questions - it is another to perform parlor tricks.

This type of research is the equivalent of a dancing bear - a circus act that humiliates the performer - but more so those who stand by and watch.  Perhaps it is time for a moratorium on all stories about brain imaging - for research to pop out of the noise the silliness bar is getting way too high!


Searching for the Mark of Cain, (by Martin Enserink, Science, Volume 289, p. 575, July 28, 2000)

 "Searching for the Mark of Cain" by Martin Enserink would have earned a spot on this page regardless of where it had appeared.  It is a classic example of "bad neurojournalism."  That this piece was published in Science, one of the premier international journals of science, is a travesty.  As a serious journal, Science should be above publishing news stories that do not take science seriously.  As a subject, reporting on studies linking biology with violent behavior require extra caution and sophistication.  Unfortunately, the research is presented at the superficial level usually reserved for popular press stories.  In place of a sophisticated analysis of behavioral research - we get the standard qualifications that take the place of true balance.  Where is the discussion of the pitfalls that stymie the application of biological findings to an understanding of complex behaviors?  What are the dangers and errors of using animal behavior research to explain human behavior?  Are findings from genetically altered strains of animals useful to study behavioral traits?  What precisely do measures of neurotransmitter function and metabolic indicators tell us about behavior?  There was no attempt to go beyond the "my results say this." type of reporting and carefully analyze whether these techniques and devices actually tell us anything.  Sensitive subjects, such as why people behave violently, deserve the utmost caution and the least amount of speculation and extrapolation.  It would have been fascinating to read a serious and thoughtful attempt to use this complex subject to really explore the many ramifications of attempts to carry out research spanning biology and behavior - and how easy it is to go down the path of intuition.  Have we learned nothing from the many misguided historical examples of past efforts to explain human behavior with simplistic biology, pop-psychology, and armchair sociology?


Study Finds Region of Brain May Be Key Problem Solver, (New York Times, Friday July 21, 2000)

Natalie Angier reports on a study by Cambridge researcher John Duncan claiming to have found the "seat of human intelligence". The scientific finding, at least as described in the story, appears to be that the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex is involved in carrying out tasks thought to tap spatial and verbal abilities. This finding alone can not make the scientific article "news" as many studies have implicated this part of the brain in a number of high level cognitive tasks. What is the key important finding of the research? Hard to tell, because the article does not provide any of the details a reader needs to assess the value of this particular study. We are told almost nothing about the experimental methodology or the subjects participating in the experiments (except for their age span). The article does not mention that there are a number of assumptions that underlie the interpretation of neuro-imaging results. The description of the tasks, (Dr. Robert Sternberg of Yale is allotted a cautionary note reminding the readers that we really do not have a good understanding of precisely what it is that classic "intelligence tests" measure), is too vague to provide any useful analysis. The article follows the usual "news" format. A scientific finding is reported without the context required to make sense of it and a series of researchers are interviewed and provide quotes that are then strung together with filler to make a story. The gratuitous discussion of modularity vs. plasticity at the end is completely out of context and would make no sense to anyone who is not a cognitive neuroscientist. A syndicated version of the story appearing in a local newspaper - chopped to fit a shorter space - was even less informative. One has to ask - whose needs does an article like this serve?


"Opinion Interview"  By Alison Motluk in the May 13, 2000 New Scientist.  Alison Motluk interviews Adrian Raine who presents some highly speculative views of the biological basis of psychopathic behavior.  It is unfortunate that such a serious societal issue - with sweeping ramifications for our criminal justice system - should be presented in a format that does not provide any thoughtful analysis of the available data.  Before we open this particular Pandora's box, it might be wise to set some ground rules.  Understanding functional imaging might be rule 1.


 "The He Hormone" by Andrew Sullivan in the April 2, 2000 New York Times Sunday Magazine.  A recent piece in the April 2, 2000 New York Times Sunday Magazine ("The He Hormone") is not specifically about mind/brain, but does call on evolutionary psychology to justify its misogynistic take on male/female behavior.  The piece is disturbing on many levels - particularly so with regard to Sullivan's providing his own anecdotal experiences following an injection of testosterone as though they qualify as scientific evidence.  If there is a substance likely to produce a b placebo effect - especially for affective traits - testosterone, laden as it is with cultural baggage, is a natural suspect.  Also disturbing was the suggestion that women tend to have higher rates of depression because lower testosterone leads to more sitting around and thinking!  More likely, it's sitting around reading stuff like this.  Ironically, the April 2 New York Times Book Review contains a cogent warning about the danger of misusing evolutionary psychology to explain human behavior in Frans B.M. de Waal's review of A Natural History of Rape by Thornhill and Palmer.  Read them both!  (Too bad the editors didn't.)


"Men's Brains Have More Cells, Say Scientists Who Counted" by Bill Sloat in the March 4, 2000, Cleveland Plain Dealer -- Originally appearing in the March 4, 2000 edition of the Plain Dealer (Cleveland), it came to our attention via its reprinting in the Dana Foundation-sponsored newsletter The Brain in the News, March 15, 2000, (Vol. 7, No. 5), The Dana Press  http://www.dana.org.  It scores a perfect 10 in all criteria required for listing.  Not sure where you might even begin making sense of this article.  Read it yourself and weep...(after you finish laughing!).


"Just What's Going On Inside That Head of Yours?" by Sandra Blakeslee in the Tuesday, March 14, 2000, NY TIMES -- Well, well, well, maybe functional imaging is not answering the tough questions in cognitive neuroscience after all! However it seems a bit disingenous for the New York Times Science section to talk about a "dazzled" public when a major source of the dazzling has been their very own pages. The Blakeslee piece makes the clearest case yet for why we think science should not and can not be reported as "news" . You can not isolate scientific findings from the context of scientific process and have the story make any sense. All prior articles about functional imaging should have discussed the difficulties and complexities of linking cognition to brain. Instead, we now get a piece that basically claims "gotcha!". Is the public really being served by this?


An article in the January 4 New York Science Times - " A Decade of Discovery Yields Shock About the Brain" - and the resulting letter to the editor by Yale's Professor Pasko Rakic provide an example of why the growing, and somewhat unfortunate, tendency to report, as news, a scientific finding isolated from a broader historical and scientific context is not serving the public.


Inside the Teen Brain: The reason for your kid's quirky behavior is in his head. U.S. News and World Report August  9, 1999 -- A mixture of pop pseudopsychology, misrepresentation, simplistic interpretations, and pure nonsense. They take one truism, that the adolescent brain is still developing, and spin the most ridiculous story...


Between the Sexes: It's a Matter of Gray and White appeared in BrainWork The Neuroscience Newsletter, July - August 1999


Journey to the Center of my Mind by Stephen S. Hall appeared in New York Times Magazine, June 6, 1999


 
Estrogen Aides Brain Activity, Tests Find, Menopause: Hormone Significantly Restores Neural Flexibility, Study Shows, by Robert Lee Holtz, appeared in the Brain in the News, April 16, 1999 (vol. 6, No.7) The Dana Press http://www.dana.org

Deep in the story one finds this telling paragraph,"Because of the way the imaging test was designed, the women did not show any noticeable difference in their conscious ability to recall the words, only at the more subtle level of cellular function. The researchers believe, however, that the brain activity does reflect improved memory." !!!!


 
Right-Brain, Left-Brain Learning Dance, by Evelyn Porreca Vuko, appeared in the Washington Post, Mach 22nd, Page C4.
For more about "brain styles" check out Ms. Vuko's sources:
The Dominance Factor: How Knowing Your Dominant Eye, Ear, Brain, Hand, Foot can Improve Your Learning, by Carla Hannaford.
Layered Curriculum (http://www.brains.org)
The Learning Brain by Eric Jensen and Gary Johnson (Brain Store, 800-255-8412)

 

Where ARE the Science Editors???


Music as Food for the Brain, appeared in Science, 20 November 1998, Vol 282


Nothing Becomes a Man More Than a Woman's Face, appeared in the September 1, 1998, New York Times.


Brain Scans Suggest Some Are Born With Violent Tendencies, appeared in the April 13, 1998, Washington Post.