From ceremony to therapy: how music could help to heal traumatised troops
Neurologists to look at use of music to aid those suffering from post-conflict trauma
Music is to be prescribed as therapy for soldiers suffering from the physical or mental effects of war, in a new initiative across the armed forces.
The army's most senior musician, Lieutenant Colonel Bob Meldrum, is taking part in a ground-breaking conference on music and the trauma of war later this month in the City of London. It will look at the potential of music to rehabilitate troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, many suffering post-traumatic stress and physical injuries. Musicians of the Royal Artillery Band and the Band of the Adjutant General's Corps are among other military personnel attending the two-day conference.
Conference director Ian Ritchie said there was a growing realisation within the forces that military musicians can play a therapeutic role – taking music beyond "the parade ground and raising morale, playing for special occasions and generally being ceremonial and upbeat" to become part of the healing process.
At a recent meeting at the Royal Military School of Music, at Kneller Hall in London, the agenda included "the trauma and the post-traumatic stress that is now the modern-analysed description of shell-shock" and its treatment with music.
Ritchie said that involving the army's musicians with such therapy would extend the role they traditionally played in medical care, such as rescuing injured soldiers from the battlefield and acting as stretcher-bearers.
Captain Craig Hallatt, the Royal Artillery Band's director of music, told the Observer: "Since the second world war, there has been a realisation that healing can be helped by music, and can even work as therapy for physical injuries. So we're really concentrating on that quite heavily now with Headley Court [the rehabilitation centre for injured service personnel]. They now have their own music room, with pianos, guitars and percussion instruments."
He added: "Going to Afghanistan, and then completing the circle by going down to Headley Court and helping with the casualties from that conflict, makes us musicians feel part of what we need to be doing."
Army musicians perform for injured servicemen at Headley Court, but they have yet to participate routinely in more direct therapy, said Meldrum, who is the army's principal director of music.
"We're playing for them, so there's some therapeutic benefit – stimulating their senses and relaxing them with distractions from what they're dealing with. But we'd like to take that a stage further and engage with professionals in the healthcare side of the armed forces. That could be getting these injured personnel involved in making music, playing instruments. It's very new. It's something we've got to explore."
He spoke of the "staggering" effect music can have, recalling his own experiences of concerts in Kosovo and the Gulf war, lifting the spirits of soldiers facing "uncertainty, threat of injury and death, and the lack of other stimulation". Musicians could play an equally important role once a conflict is over, he added.
The conference, entitled Worlds in Collision and organised by charity The Musical Brain, takes place at Mansion House on 28 and 29 June, and will be attended by musicians, therapists, neurologists and historians as well as soldiers. It forms part of this year's City of London Festival and has been organised in partnership with, among others, the army and the Kings Centre for Military Health Research. The speakers will include Dr Julie Sutton, a specialist in psychological trauma and music therapy. Neurological studies have proved the impact of music on the body, she said.
"Our pulses can change to chime in with the music. Our physical state can change in response to music. It can energise us, and calm us. Someone traumatised is in a beyond-terrified state with no sense of themselves in time. Flashbacks are not memories but the actual event. Music gives a physical sense of a beat that goes through time. It creates a sense of time moving forward. If you have contact with music, your state changes."
The conference will include a concert programme ranging from standard military fare such as William Walton's Crown Imperial and patriotic pieces to more reflective repertoire, including a movement from a violin concerto by French composer Édouard Lalo. Professor Nigel Osborne, a composer and expert in music and therapy, has brought together pieces by soldier-composers of the first world war, such as songs by Ivor Gurney, who wrote while fighting on the Somme, which will be performed by the Royal Artillery Band.
Ritchie said of the programme: "What it represents is a much broader repertoire that covers the introspective and the very extrovert, that covers the raising of morale but also the reflection that comes from other qualities of music."
Love bombing: Oliver James, Susan Greenfield and the rise of data-free celebrity science | Martin Robbins
Oliver James has followed in the steps of speculative theorist Susan Greenfield by announcing his 'love bombing' hypothesis through the media, and at the Hay Festival. Is it really helpful for academics to short-circuit science in this way, and why are old people so miserable about children in the first place?
Like all good academics, when Oliver James has a new idea he writes it down for peer review and presents his findings at a conference. Thus his latest contribution to the burgeoning field of speculative popular psychology appeared in the form of a book and newspaper column, and was presented yesterday at the Hay Festival, who managed to find some space for him in between sessions on metaplasticity in the hippocampus and the increasingly frantic attempts of Nick Ross to become relevant.
This approach was pioneered by Susan Greenfield, among others; an academic I've written about so many times that every time I type her name my keyboard lets out an involuntary little sigh. It has some distinct advantages for the academic, as Oliver James admitted in response to an impertinent audience member who challenged him at the Hay Festival. "I myself am a busy man," The Telegraph reported him as saying, "I don't have time to muck about doing intervention studies."
It's a heart-breaking plight that should be familiar to observers of Greenfield sigh. A BBC reporter, Zoe Kleinman, recently questioned her on her failure to publish any research to back up … well, whatever exactly it is that her hypothesis about brains and computers is supposed to be: "How can I publish just one paper?" she replied, seemingly unaware that academics are not subject to paper rationing. "Does Professor Richard Dawkins have one paper which sets out why God doesn't exist? Tell me one experiment I should do that proves once and for all whether computers are evil for the brain." Science isn't often about iconic egos, grand experiments and revolutionary theories though; it tends to be built on modest, incremental progress, and Susan Greenfield sigh seems unable to manage even that.
Oliver James' idea is called 'love bombing', an unfortunate juxtaposition of sex and violence that conjures up images of exploding Playboy bunnies raining down on Baghdad. His view is that parents have become too selfish, and that imposing any sort of routine on a baby is 'wicked'. Mothers – only mothers, apparently – should do better, responding immediately to the proto-human's needs. The solution is "love bombing", not to be confused with "sex shooting" or the "fuck strike". In an article last September he described it as:
"… a method I developed to reset the emotional thermostats of children aged three to puberty. It entails spending a period of time alone with your child, offering them unlimited love and control. This is not the same as "quality time" – just hanging out with your child. When you love bomb, you create a special emotional zone wholly different from normal life, with new rules.
"So, how exactly does it work? First, you explain to your child that, sometime soon, the two of you are going to spend time together, one to one, and have a lot of fun. Your child is going to decide what they want and when they want it, within reason. You give the message that this is going to be a Big Event: It's Coming Soon … How Exciting! The child then draws up a list of things to do. It doesn't matter if it includes lots of SpongeBob SquarePants: the key is that your child has chosen it.
"Throughout the experience, you are trying, as much as possible, to give them the feeling of "whatever I want, I get" – of being in control and of being gratified, as well as bombed with love."
By resetting the "emotional thermostat" – a task usually achieved by jabbing a pen into your child's reset button – this affection-nuking apparently solves a whole array of problem behaviours, "severe or mild; from defiant – even violent – aggression to shyness, sleeping problems or underperformance at school."
How does this work? "I suspect that the experience stabilizes levels of the fight-flight hormone cortisol," says Oliver, which sounds both suitably "sciencey" and rather simplistic. I'm not sure many scientists would call cortisol 'the fight-flight hormone' given that its release is just one part of that response, and the relationship between its "stability" and a child's emotional welfare is probably A Bit More Complicated Than That. In any case, a suspicion does not a theory make. All we have here is a tenuous thread of reckonings, some of them rather impenetrable – I tried Googling the phrase "emotional thermostat", but found only a page of links to previous Oliver James articles.
James admits that he's being a bit naughty here. According to the Telegraph, "He acknowledged the approach may be viewed as 'irresponsible' by some," describing himself as merely a "lone punter" and adding that "it 'wouldn't do any harm' to treat children to a weekend away along with his suggestion." And it's true, indulging a child for a weekend probably won't do a lot of harm. It probably won't do a lot of anything much in the grand scheme of things.
But that doesn't mean that this sort of scientific short-circuiting isn't troubling, if not for the advice than for the torrent of misinformation that tends to accompany it. Parents are bombarded with a million half-formed pseudo-theories about how they should be bringing up their kids, and throwing one more into the mix helps nobody – it just makes the good advice harder to find. It also shows a remarkable degree of arrogance; a worrying lack of respect for the scientific community. Why bother submitting your ideas to the scrutiny of peers when you can float above it all, carried along by the hot air of the press?
It's not just scientists that are shoved aside in the race to broadcast these "reckonings", but ironically the very parents and children that James and Greenfield sigh claim to defend. In both cases, the unthinking assumption at the heart of their thinking is that the children of "Broken Britain" are the worst we've had in generations, damaged by social change, technological upheaval and ignorant parenting. It doesn't seem to occur to them that the kids of today might be doing at least as well as their ancestors. Perhaps they could do better still if older generations weren't so intent on slagging them off.
Think brain scans can reveal our innermost thoughts? Think again | Raymond Tallis
Increasing claims for neuroscience – that it can locate jealousy or Muslim fundamentalism – are ludicrous
The grip of neuroscience on the academic and popular imagination is extraordinary. In recent decades, brain scientists have burst out of the laboratory into the public forum. They are everywhere, analysing and explaining every aspect of our humanity, mobilising their expertise to instruct economists, criminologists, educationists, theologians, literary critics, social scientists and even politicians, and in some cases predicting a neuro-savvy utopia in which mankind, blessed with complete self-understanding, will be able to create a truly rational and harmonious future.
So the smile-worthy prediction, reported in the Huffington Post, by Kathleen Taylor, Oxford scientist and author of The Brain Supremacy, that Muslim fundamentalism "may be categorised as mental illness and cured by science" as a result of advances in neuroscience is not especially eccentric. It does, however, make you wonder why the pronouncements of neuroscientists command such a quantity of air-time and even credence.
It would be a mistake to assume their authority is based on revelatory discoveries, comparable to those made in leading-edge physics, which have translated so spectacularly into the evolving gadgetry of daily life. There is no shortage of data pouring out of neuroscience departments. Research papers on the brain run into millions. The key to their influence, however, is the exciting technologies the studies employ, notably various scans used to reveal the activity of the waking, living brain.
The jewel in the neuroscientific crown is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), justly described by Matt Crawford as "a fast-acting solvent of the critical faculties". It seems that pretty well any assertion placed next to an fMRI scan will attract credulous attention. Behind this is something that goes deeper than uncritical technophilia. It is the belief that you are your brain, and brain activity is identical with your consciousness, so that peering into the intracranial darkness is the best way of advancing our knowledge of humankind.
Alas, this is based on a simple error. As someone who worked for many years, as a clinician and scientist, with people who had had strokes or suffered from epilepsy, I was acutely aware of the extent to which living an ordinary life was dependent on having a brain in some kind of working order. It did not follow from this that everyday living is being a brain in some kind of working order. The brain is a necessary condition for ordinary consciousness, but not a sufficient condition.
You don't have to be a Cartesian dualist to accept that we are more than our brains. It's enough to acknowledge that our consciousness is not tucked away in a particular space, but is irreducibly relational. What is more, our moment-to-moment consciousness – unlike nerve impulses – is steeped in a personal and historical past and a personal and collective future, in cultures that extend beyond our individual selves. We belong to a community of minds, developed over hundreds of thousands of years, to which our brains give us access but which is not confined to the stand-alone brain. Studies that locate irreducibly social phenomena – such as "love", the aesthetic sense, "wisdom" or "Muslim fundamentalism" – in the function or dysfunction of bits of our brains are conceptually misconceived.
The greatest excitement, orchestrated by the most extravagant press releases, surrounds the discovery of correlations between the responsiveness of certain areas of the brain and particular aspects of our personality. This neo-phrenology is actually based on shakier grounds than is usually appreciated. Few people realise how indirect is the relationship between what the scan detects and what is happening in the brain. There are many steps in the processing of the data that generates the beautiful coloured pictures that command such credence.
The much-touted idea that neuroimaging will soon be able to see "thoughts" – so that brain scans will be mind scans – fails to reflect the fact that even simple thoughts (such as "I live in Stockport") belong to a nexus of significance called a world and have a multitude of meanings and implications. Taylor's neuroscience of fundamentalism is absurd in principle because "fundamentalism" is an ill-defined cluster of propensities that will be realised differently in different people and will anyway be subject to normative judgments by others. It will not boil down to something a scan could pick up, such as overactivity in the brain's Qur'an interpretation centre.
Encouragingly, some scientists have started to sound the alarm, beginning in 2009 with Ed Vul and his co-authors' savage attack in a paper initially called "Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience". They found serious problems with the localisations observed in such studies. The links between brain regions and feelings such as social rejection, neuroticism and jealousy used methods that artificially inflated the strength of the connection. Katherine Button's more recent review of the field in the prestigious Nature Reviews Neuroscience is even more devastating. She concludes that the statistical power of most studies is very low. On top of this, there is publication bias towards picking out positive correlations, with little incentive for checking for repeatability after the excitement has died down.
The will to believe that brain scans reveal our deepest secrets and will give us the tools to manipulate our fellow humans for our collective benefit probably has quite deep origins. The idea that we are our brains, and that we are destined to act in certain ways prescribed by this biologically evolved organ, relieves us of some of the responsibility for our behaviour. There is also the erroneous idea that if, as many of us wish, we are to reject a supernatural account of the world, along with the idea of the self as an eternal soul planted in the material body, answerable to god, then we are obliged to embrace a naturalistic account of ourselves as organisms, and the self as identical with the key part of that organism, namely our brain.
This mistake was anticipated by the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle in The Concept of Mind: Man need not be degraded to a machine by being denied to be a ghost in a machine. He might, after all, be a sort of animal, namely a higher mammal. There has yet to be ventured the hazardous leap to the hypothesis that perhaps he is man.
Neuroprattle that locates our experiences, propensities and character in the activity of parts of our brain stops us taking this hazardous leap and gets in the way of the humanist project of truly understanding ourselves.
Next time you see a prettily coloured brain scan next to an article burbling on about breakthroughs in understanding our humanity, reach for the salt.
• This article was amended on 2 June 2013, the sentence "We belong to a community of minds, developed over hundreds of thousands of years, to which our brains give us access but which is not confined to the stand-alone brain" initially said it was confined to the stand-alone brain.
Appreciating the politics of psychiatry | Nathan Emmerich
Concerns over the DSM are part of a bigger issue concerning the power of the psychological and neurological sciences
The relationship of psychiatry to the prevailing political context has always been troubling. In authoritarian environments, such as the USSR, psychiatry has been used as a relatively blunt tool of political repression. This can be paralleled with contemporary concerns about corporate influence. The worry is that a capitalist or overly marketised environment prepares the ground for the diagnostic criteria of psychiatric illnesses to be influenced by the available treatments ie by the available psycho-pharmacological drugs.
Although his suggestion that mental illness is a myth is overly polemical Thomas Szasz offered a more nuanced critique, one that exposed the subtle relationship between social norms, small "p" politics, and psychiatric knowledge. Some of the concerns raised by Szasz and other "anti-psychiatrists" can be discerned in recent debate, prompted by the publication of DSM-5, about whether or not mental illness is "really real".
The task of securing the etiology of mental illness is an important one, but it is not the case that the only "real" illnesses are those with biological causes. Those addicted to gambling are no less addicted than those addicted to heroin. Addiction is not simply a function of an individual's neurobiology but of their psychology, history and social environment. The emotional, affective, cultural and social dimensions cannot be eliminated from mental illnesses, even those illnesses thought to have a strong biological basis. This perspective is reinforced when we consider the fact that the ongoing success of any treatment is inseparable from the social realities within which individuals live.
This entanglement between the biological, psychological and sociological dimensions of human life is the basis for the field of biopolitics. Whilst this term is increasingly influential in a range of academic endeavors, it has only just begun to make serious cultural inroads. This is somewhat ironic as the basic insight of biopolitics is that academic and, in particular, scientific understandings of what it is to be human exert a deep influence on the ways in which we can understand ourselves and, therefore, on the nature of our existence as socio-cultural beings.
For example Foucault held that the existence of human sexuality was not so much discovered as invented. Initially homosexuality was conceived as a proto-psychiatric and pathological category but with it came its antonym. The concept of heterosexuality, the norm from which homosexuality deviates, was also brought into existence. The consequences have been enormous, not least in producing the idea that sexuality is a central aspect of not only humanity but also individual human beings and their identity. Recent discussion of asexuality only provides further support for this view.
In a relatively short historical time sex between people of the same gender has gone from sinful act, to a pathological sexuality, to one form of human sexuality. To recognise the role of psychiatry in the production and transformation of sexuality is to recognise the moral and political significance of the discipline and the knowledge it has to offer. We might then reflect on the moral and political significance of transforming the cultural problems of "overeating" and "grief" when we label them "binge-eating disorder" and "major depressive disorder" respectively.
We might also reflect on the current trend for neurological explanations of everything. Some bioethicists have recently argued for the utility of so-called "love drugs". These drugs are psychoactive compounds that may, one day, allow us to reinforce aspects of our romantic lives. They might allow us to support a foundering marriage or to weaken romantic feelings we no longer wish to have.
Aside from the dualism inherent in this picture, which suggests a distinction between our emotional attachments, feelings and desires and our logical and rational intentions and decision-making, such fictional social-scientific imaginings may themselves make important contributions to the possibility of their own success. The very fact of imagining ourselves to be beings whose emotional lives can be subjected to material and psychopharmacological control is an important factor in making the possibility a cultural reality. At minimum the existence of such drugs will radically alter the social morality of our romantic relationships.
There is an increasing recognition of the way in which science and scientific knowledge influences culture. This influence is noticeable precisely because we are not simply biological beings, and precisely because our biology cannot be separated from our culture. However we should be wary of replacing our cultural self-understanding with that offered by "the human sciences". When taken up as cultural self-understanding, the knowledge offered by science and, in particular, the psy-sciences must be considered as having political consequences and, indeed, as being inherently political in the first place.
Just as the idea of sexuality has made a deep contribution to the way in which we understand ourselves, both individually and collectively, the psy-, neuro and human sciences offer frameworks within which we can conceptualise and reconceptualise ourselves. They function to reorientate and reinterpret collective and individual problems of cultural concern. Thus when Nikolas Rose talks of "Inventing Our Selves" and Ian Hacking writes about "Making up people" or lectures on "Making up Autism" they are rejecting the idea that the science of human beings and of human being can tell us what is and is not "really real" precisely because they are implicated in the outcomes of their endeavors.
Where the natural sciences have objects – atoms, electromagnetic waves, molecules, cells and organisms – the science of human beings has subject-objects. Human beings conduct those sciences that take "human being" as the object of their attention. They are ways of understanding ourselves and, since we are reflexive beings, they cannot but impact upon us as the subjects of their investigation. This does not prevent the human sciences from being rigorous but it does alter the basis on which they are conducted; it alters the ethical and political orientation we ought to adopt towards the knowledge they produce.
We must be wary of uncritically accepting knowledge offered by the human, psy-, and neuro- sciences because, as amply demonstrated by the uses to which it is put by speculative bioethics and allied projects such as post- and trans- humanism, within it we find the power for a transformation of what it is to be human. The human sciences and, for that matter, bioethics are not ethically neutral and we should recognise that the knowledge they offer is part of the politics of life itself.
The Anatomy of Violence by Adrian Raine – review
A surprisingly entertaining study of genetic disposition to crime poses challenging moral questions
Is rape an act of hate? Why are you 100 times more likely to be killed on your birthday? Might a casual Mars Bar prompt you to commit murder? And why should you steer clear of men with long ring-fingers? These and other equally intriguing questions are posed here by Adrian Raine.
The book is subtitled "The Biological Roots of Crime" and the larger part of it is an extensive and, despite the grim subject, entertaining account of the physiological factors that may have a role in antisocial behaviour. Some, Raine argues, are evolutionary in origin. Rape, for example, may be an aspect of an instinctive male drive to reproduce his genes as widely as possible (the correct interpretation of the "survival of the fittest" criterion). In support of this disturbing hypothesis, he cites the fact that a statistically high number of rape victims are attacked at their peak reproductive age. And yet, of course, at this age women are also likely to be at their most attractive, though Raine also suggests that rapists do not necessarily pick victims for their sexual allure. Most rapists come from the socially disadvantaged backgrounds, a fact which is also, rather unconvincingly, pressed into service in the evolutionary theory (undominant males allegedly having to cheat the system in order to spread their genes). But social disadvantage surely promotes a sense of inferiority, which seems at least as likely a catalyst for crimes like rape.
Raine has spent three decades researching a subject that may have serious implications for criminal justice and crime prevention. He describes his own conversion to respect for biological determinism from an initial flirtation with the theories of RD Laing, who argued that psychotic states were induced purely by deficiencies in familial environments. The studies cited by Raine range widely. Examination of the prefrontal cortex – an area of the brain exclusive to humans and responsible for emotional control – indicates that it malfunctions in violent criminals. More recondite researches suggest that disruptive schoolboys have lower resting heart rates and women deficient in iron during pregnancy may have children with higher than usual levels of manganese in their system, which, in turn, apparently predisposes them to greater aggression.
Raine gives due weight to psychological and social elements in the cocktail of factors which may tend to violence. Countries such as Denmark and Japan, where income equality is high, have lower murder rates – as do those where fish consumption is high. In addition, it seems the Beatles were right and that all you need is love, as cultures that place a greater value on love than financial success (though where these paradises are located remains unclear) also have lower rates of violent crime. And in one of many droll case studies we learn of the "Twinkie defence", when the sugar rush supposedly induced by a brand of cake was successfully used by lawyers acting for the man accused of the murder of gay US politician Harvey Milk. Parents keen on restricting children's sugar intake will be confirmed in their resolution.
As Raine points out, the research raises big questions. If our actions are caused by physiological factors beyond our control, where does that leave free will and how does that affect the penal system? If we can anticipate violent adult crime by screening children for conditions such as a low resting heart rate, should we then monitor them to avert later catastrophe? If a genetic disposition that tends towards criminal outcome is detected, should that person be denied the right to have children? Is early vitamin B deficiency a sufficient defence against murder? The moral position is challenging.
Raine gives examples where genetic dispositions have had both positive and negative outcomes owing to differing social environments. Long ring-fingers in men indicate higher than usual testosterone levels, but this of itself does not lead to aggressive behaviour. It simply adds to the likelihood. And Raine is careful to point out that such anomalies can also have a role in acts of unusual courage, even heroism.
The book makes fascinating reading, though I could have done without the jaunty, hail-fellow-well-met style. "Don't you sometimes find that Christmas is just a bit too much?" "Killing is one thing. Striking your wife across the face is another." Indeed. And in case you've not yet worked it out, you are more likely to die on your birthday because the rate of infanticide at the time of birth is alarmingly high. The Anatomy of Violence is a sobering reminder that for all our cultural pretensions, we are also at the mercy of our biological systems. The potential for violence is an aspect of our humanity – a potential easily aroused.
Salley Vickers's latest novel is The Cleaner of Chartres (Viking)
Neuroscience v rocket science: which is biggest and best? | Dean Burnett
When people emphasise how complicated something is, they often compare it to either one or the other, but which one wins?
If someone wants to emphasise the simplicity of a task or process, a common tactic is to compare it to either brain surgery or rocket science. So, it appears that being a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist is considered equal in terms of complexity and achievement.
Is this fair? What are the odds that two completely different disciplines with totally different goals and aims would end up being precisely equal in complexity? So which of the two disciplines is more impressive? This has been debated before. Mitchell and Webb did an amusing sketch about this, and came down on the side of rocket science, but that's hardly conclusive. No, if we want to know which science is best, there's only one way to find out… FIGHT!
(By which I mean, a comparison of the properties of both leading to a fair assessment of which is the greater contributor to society as a whole, and thus more deserving of the title of "top science". That's a "fight" to most scientists).
For this comparison, brain surgery is broadened to neuroscience in general. A kidney surgeon probably works just as hard and has as difficult a job, but for most people, brain = complexity. Also, a number of brain surgeons have compared their job to that of a mechanic.
For balance, "rocket science" will incorporate the majority of space-based science and discovery. Rockets are largely a means to an end, so it's only fair to consider the end result.
You may disagree with these parameters, which is fair enough, but then this is just an irreverent blog, not something legally binding. Don't worry about it.
Neuroscience: Neuroscience is the study of the human brain and nervous system. Its myriad subdivisions look into memory processing, motor control, language, drug development, neurodegenerative diseases and nerve damage, and so on. If the brain is involved in some way then there's arguably scope for neuroscience to be applied in some form. And everything we do involves the brain.
Rocket science: Rocket science is about developing rockets and using them to send things into space. There are a lot of reasons to do this, from deep-space telescopes, space habitats, satellites for TV, weather and so on, all of which provide information that is of benefit to the human race. There are also a ridiculous number of modern everyday conveniences that stem from the space programme.
Outcome: Despite the extensive applications offered by the space programme, the use of all of them involve the brain, so neuroscience has the trump card.
Neuroscience: 1 – Rocket science: 0
Neuroscience: Anyone who works with the brain is working with the most complex single object known to mankind. So this isn't really a fair comparison. Although this shouldn't be taken to mean that anyone who works with it understands the brain and this level of complexity, it's more impressive-by-proxy.
Rocket science: The act of physically sending something into space from deep in Earth gravity well, safely and repeatedly, is extremely challenging. Couple this with the conditions to be encountered in space and the fact that you can't just go and fix something if it goes wrong, it means everything has to be taken into account before you do anything, this all adds up to an intensely complex process, let alone the more "minor" complexities that are rife. To do all this in a manner that is safe for humans just makes it all even more difficult.
Outcome: Despite all the hassle and difficulty with getting something into space, the brain still scoffs at it in terms of complexity.
Neuroscience: 2 – Rocket science: 0
Neuroscience: A lot of neuroscience research is performed on animals or willing volunteers. In order to do this, stringent safety guidelines have to be followed, as if not this can cause serious damage to the subject. This is even more evident in brain surgery, where a simple slip of the hand can cause permanent brain damage. It's possible some drug derived from neuroscientific research could cause widespread damage if it turns out it was wrong, but again that's why we have layers of peer review and testing.
Rocket science: Rocket science is a field which still involves sending objects and people great distances into a very hostile environment on top of man-made tubes filled with powerful explosive. Unfortunate occurrences can happen, and in these circumstances they can be disastrous.
Outcome: A mistake in neuroscience can leave one person damaged for life. A mistake in rocket science could kill a lot of people
Neuroscience: 2 – Rocket science: 1
Neuroscience: Neuroscience involves the brain, so if you have a brain and a body, then technically that's all you need to do neuroscience. Not saying you'll enjoy it, but you can do it.
Rocket Science: Although home rockets are obtainable (and you can make your own) and space travel is becoming more accessible, you still need a great deal of money and resources to perform "true" rocket science.
Outcome: When you carry your subject matter around with you at all times, it doesn't get more accessible than that.
Neuroscience: 3 – Rocket science: 1
Neuroscience: Modern neuroscience uses MRI scanners and the like to give colourful, fascinating images of a working brain and its activity in specified circumstances. This strikes many people as quite profound, given that the brain is the seat of the mind and consciousness. The brain itself is not so glamorous looking, though. It resembles nothing so much as a walnut with a major thyroid problem.
Rocket science: Rocket science has given us images of Earth from space, distant stars and galaxies, the surfaces of other planets, and people regularly gather to watch rockets go screaming into space on gigantic pillars of flame.
Outcome: A view of the entire universe on one side, a big walnut on the other. No contest, really.
Neuroscience: 3 – Rocket science: 2
Neuroscience: Neuroscience is slowly creeping into more and more pop culture. Sadly, it is mostly used in dubious ways, such as neuromarketing, dodgy "facts" and films like Phenomenon.
Rocket Science: Rocket science is unusual in that it technically existed in popular culture before it did in the real world. Popular culture and fiction seem to have influenced rocket science and vice-versa since their inception.
Outcome: Did you even see Phenomenon? And don't get me started on Johnny Mnemonic…
Neuroscience: 3 – Rocket science: 3
Neuroscience: Although there are a number of high-profile, respectable neuroscientists out there, it's hard to think of one who's a household name. In the UK at least, the most well-known neuroscientist is probably Susan Greenfield. I believe this actually counts against neuroscience as a whole, though.
Rocket Science: Goddard, Commander Hadfield, Helen Keen, there are numerous great ambassadors for rocket science. And who said that "One small step for man…" quote? Was it a neuroscientist? No, it was not.
Outcome: Damn Greenfield!
Neuroscience: 3 – Rocket science: 4
Neuroscience: The science and activities of the brain have given rise to all manner of pseudoscience. Indeed, when you consider that all pseudoscience is the product of human invention, the brain is responsible for pseudoscience in general. The placebo effect and confirmation bias has allowed alternative medicine to flourish, the unknown extent of the capabilities of the brain is exploited by psychics and the like, and poorly understood malfunctions in the brain may have potentially altered the course of human history. That's some powerful neuroscience, there.
Rocket science: Essentially "responsible" for moon-landing deniers, rocket science has produced its fair share of pseudoscience, mostly linked to conspiracy theories.
Outcome: Pseudoscience stems from the human brain, so neuroscience can claim the bulk of it.
Neuroscience: 4 – Rocket science: 4
It's a draw. 4 - 4.
You may see this as a cop out, but you don't get to keep a personal science platform on a high-profile media site by enraging potential readers. That should have been easy to figure out. Come on, it's not quantum mechanics.
Dean Burnett usually reserves his neuroscience cheer-leading for Twitter, @garwboy.
His new science/humour podcast "Dean and Dave's science webnoise" with close friend and fellow science blogger David Steele, is available here and via iTunes.
Dreaming of animals and other warning signs of neurodegeneration | Mo Costandi
Sleep disturbances may be an early warning sign of Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases
The latest issue of Nature contains an Outlook supplement about the health impacts of poor sleep, including a feature I wrote about the link between sleep disturbances and neurodegenerative diseases, called "Amyloid awakenings". The title refers to a process called amyloidosis, by which mutated, abnormally folded proteins aggregate to form insoluble clumps in the brain.
This process is a normal part of ageing, but happens faster in some people than others. Alzheimer's disease, for example, is characterised by insoluble clumps called plaques, which build up in the spaces around neurons in the brain, and neurofibrillary tangles, which accumulate inside the cells. The plaques are made of a mutated protein called amyloid-beta (Aβ), and the tangles of another called Tau. Most other neurodegenerative diseases involve the build-up of misfolded proteins (although each is associated with a different protein or proteins), so amyloidosis does not specifically refer to Aβ aggregation, but is a catch-all term for the process.
The feature grew out of two recent news stories I wrote: the first reported on research presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans last October, showing that sleep disturbances may predict Alzheimer's, and the second describes a paper published earlier this year, showing that age-related deterioration of the prefrontal cortex disrupts sleep and impairs memory. Other research published over the past five years or so suggests that sleep disturbances could be an early warning sign of other neurodegenerative conditions, and the article summarises much of this work.
The research shows that people with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and several other neurodegenerative conditions often experience sleep disturbances many decades before any symptoms appear, and that these disturbances are somehow linked to disruptions of the circadian rhythm. They include common sleeping difficulties such as insomnia, sleep apnoea, and daytime drowsiness, and some slightly more unusual ones. According to one small study published in 2011, for example, the early stages of Parkinson's disease are characterised by alterations in the content of dreams, particularly the presence of animals and increased aggressiveness.
It is still not clear how the sleep disturbances experienced by pre-symptomatic Alzheimer's patients differ from those who will go on to develop one of the other neurodegenerative conditions. Yet, all of the researchers I spoke to seem to agree that sleep disturbances may be the earliest manifestation of these diseases, and that detecting and treating them as early as possible may slow the neurodegenerative process, or even prevent it altogether.
They all agree, too, that the relationship between sleep and neurodegeneration is probably a two-way street. In other words, people with unhealthy sleeping habits earlier on in life may be predisposing themselves to these diseases.
Another new study, published earlier this month, shows that major depressive disorder involves disruption of the activity of hundreds of genes that are involved in regulating the circadian rhythm. Typically, these so-called "clock genes" exhibit regularly fluctuating expression patterns, so that their activity goes up and down with the daily rhythm of the body. As I discuss in my article, the sleep disturbances in patients who go on to develop neurodegenerative diseases are accompanied by a breakdown in the rhythmic expression of clock genes. This new paper is interesting because we now know that depression involves pathological changes similar to those seen in Alzheimer's, including shrinkage of the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in learning and memory.
One thing I didn't mention in the article, due to space restrictions, is the relationship between protein aggregation and neurodegeneration. In some of these diseases, the misfolded proteins that build up in the brain are highly toxic, and lead directly to neuronal cell death. This is true of the motor neuron diseases and the prion diseases, which include "mad cow disease" and various human forms of it, such as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). For the past few decades, researchers assumed that Aβ plaques cause Alzheimer's disease, and drug companies spent billions researching and developing drugs that block plaque formation or break down plaques that have already formed.
In animal studies, these drugs alleviate the memory impairments associated with Alzheimer's. In humans, however, they don't seem to work, and as a result several large drug companies have halted clinical trials in their late stages. Some researchers are sticking to their guns, arguing that the drugs have to be administered at the earliest stages of the disease to be effective.
It is also possible that plaque formation is a consequence of Alzheimer's disease, rather than its cause. According to one new school of thought, it's the soluble form of Aβ protein that is toxic, and the plaques may actually be protecting the brain by capturing these soluble protein particles and preventing them from causing damage. If this turns out to be the case, then blocking plaque formation may actually be harmful.
How does this come to bear on the link between sleep disturbances and neurodegeneration? In Alzheimer's, plaque formation seems to be closely related to the sleep-wake cycle. One study found that levels of soluble Aβ decrease at night and increase during the day, and are significantly elevated after sleep deprivation. Another showed that the sleep-wake cycle breaks down following plaque formation, but is restored when the plaques are eliminated.
It may mean that the protective mechanism is more active while we sleep than during waking hours, which is in keeping with the emerging view that sleeping well is important for good overall health. More research is needed to clarify exactly how all these factors are related, but this does not bear on the possibility that sleeping difficulties are early diagnostic markers of Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Peering at bright screens after dark could harm health, doctor claims
Light from TVs, computers, tablets and smartphones may disrupt sleep and raise risk of obesity, heart disease and depression
Watching TV or using computers, tablets or smartphones after dark may cause sleep loss and resultant health problems, a leading doctor has warned.
Peering at brightly lit screens at night disrupts the body's natural rhythms and raises the risk of medical conditions linked to poor sleep, including obesity, heart disease, strokes and depression, he said.
The warning, from Charles Czeisler, director of sleep medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston in the US, comes as cheap electricity and more portable devices make it easier to surf the web, read books and check social media on glowing gadgets at any time of night.
Artificial light can prevent a good night's rest by dampening down the activity of neurons that bring on sleep, activating those for wakefulness, and suppressing the sleep hormone, melatonin. Together these push back the natural clock that controls the body's sleep-wake cycle.
"As a result, many people are still checking email, doing homework, or watching TV at midnight, with hardly a clue that it is the middle of the solar night," Czeisler writes in the journal, Nature. "Technology has effectively decoupled us from the natural 24-hour day to which our bodies evolved, driving us to bed later. And we use caffeine in the morning to rise as early as we ever did, putting the squeeze on sleep."
Reliable trends on sleep behaviour are hard to confirm, but a survey published last year of workers in Britain claimed that 5% slept no more than five hours a night. After a similar survey in the US suggested that nearly 30% of respondents were sleeping no more than six hours a night, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said insufficient sleep was a "public health epidemic".
Long-term sleep loss raises the risk of a range of diseases, and those who get less than five hours a night have a 15% greater risk of death from all causes than people of the same age who sleep well. Because sleep-deprived children become hyperactive rather than dozy, sleep loss might be mistaken for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, Czeisler warns.
The Boston physician, who holds patents on using light to reset the body's circadian clock, claims that the number of people who aren't getting enough sleep is likely to rise because of the availability of TVs, computer screens, laptops, tablets and handheld devices that use energy-efficient LEDs. These can produce light rich in blue and blue-green wavelengths, which light-sensitive cells in the eye respond to most strongly.
Czeisler calls for night lighting that replaces the bluer hues with reds and oranges, which disrupt the body's circadian rhythms less. He criticises some airlines' decision to flood aircraft cabins with blue light – the best colour for suppressing melatonin and disrupting sleep.
Derk-Jan Dijk, director of the Surrey Sleep Research Centre at Surrey University, said exposure to artificial light in the evening made people less sleepy, and so less likely to go to bed on time. In a report last year, he concluded there was a "growing need to engineer artificial light to minimise its disruptive effect".
"Before the advent of artificial light, going to bed was determined by the Earth's rotation about its axis. Now it's determined by our behaviour, and that is the really fundamental change," Dijk said. "The main issue now is awareness. Light has an activating effect, but people don't treat light as they would caffeine. If you have problems falling asleep that might be associated with this, keep your exposure to light low in the evening."
Enough iodine vital in pregnancy – study
Baby's mental development reduced where mother's diet lacks iodine, researchers say in Lancet
Are mental illnesses such as PMS and depression culturally determined? | Corrinne Burns
A growing number of psychiatrists suspect mental conditions are 'culture-bound syndromes' rather than exclusively biological
The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – DSM 5 – was published over the weekend. Produced by the American Psychiatric Association, it describes the symptoms of a vast range of mental illnesses and is intended as a guide to diagnosis.
Why should we in the UK care? Simple: the political dominance of the US means that as soon as a mental disorder is named in the DSM, that disorder becomes valid in the eyes of many.
But not everyone is a fan. The DSM committee has been accused of continually expanding the categories of mental illness, resulting in "diagnostic inflation" – with the result that increasing numbers of us are diagnosed with one condition or another.
The committee has also fallen foul of the US National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), which dislikes the DSM's symptom-based approach. The NIMH argues that laboratory tests for biomarkers are the only rational way to diagnose mental illness.
And two weeks ago the British Psychological Society released a statement claiming that there is no scientific validity to diagnostic labels such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Indeed, the DSM's fondness for the categorisation of mental illness is a major reason for its unpopularity in many quarters. According to Gary Greenberg in the New Yorker, frustrated scientists believe its beloved categories "don't correspond to biological reality".
Is that a fair criticism? I would argue that the categorisation of mental illness based on symptoms can be useful. But – and it's a big, fat, hairy but – we must accept that those diagnostic categories are cultural constructions, not global certainties.
Culture-bound syndromes are most often the preoccupation of anthropologists. Typically, the patient displays symptoms that are recognised as indicating a particular illness only by other members of that patient's cultural group. The dhat syndrome observed in parts of India, characterised by fatigue, anxiety and guilt and usually experienced by men, is a well-documented example of a psychological culture-bound syndrome, as is the susto, or fright sickness, of Latin America.
In a recent editorial in the British Journal of General Practice, Professor Christopher Dowrick argues that depression could be a western culture-bound syndrome, rather than a universal disorder. In support of his case, Prof Dowrick notes the lack of consensus in psychiatry over what even constitutes depression: the endless shifting of diagnostic goalposts.
He points out that there is no discrete genetic variation known to cause depression. Rather, there is genetic overlap across a range of mental illness, including depressive disorder, autism and schizophrenia.
Prof Dowrick's point is that as China and India become politically dominant, spreading different concepts of what constitutes mental illness, we will have to be more sceptical of our cherished diagnostic categories. "In western anglophone societies we have developed an ethic of happiness, in which aberrations … are assumed to indicate illness," he writes.
Others have argued that pre-menstrual syndrome, too, is a Western culture-bound syndrome. In 1987, Thomas S Johnson claimed that the symptoms were an expression of "conflicting societal expectations" on women. In 2012, a meta-analysis of published research failed to find evidence that negative mood correlates to the pre-menstrual phase of the menstrual cycle. And earlier this year, a qualitative study found that a "cognitive reframing" of the symptoms could reduce self-reported pre-menstrual distress.
Could depression and PMS really be culture-bound syndromes rather than biological entities? For sure, no one is arguing than they are not genuine illnesses – to the patient, the symptoms are real and painful. I used to be convinced by the biomedical model of depression, but now I'm not so sure. Could depression, and other familiar mental conditions, be interpreted as a kind of local language – our culturally established way of expressing distress and asking for help?
A DSM-style categorisation of illness based on symptoms could still be useful, provided we bear in mind that our local diagnostic categories are no more universal than our local language. We may also need to accept that treatments for mental disorder are not universally applicable. Culture-bound syndromes need culture-bound treatments: interventions recognised as "medicine" by both patient and practitioner.
It's a very complex subject – not least because there may be crossover between the cultural and the biological; between the BPS's dismissal of diagnostic labels and the NIMH's desire to find a biomarker for every illness.
"I think the distinction between 'biological' and 'social' causes can get tricky. Lots of human practices that are clearly culturally patterned – child-rearing practices, diet, and sleep patterns, for example – affect our biology," Dr Rachel Cooper, author of Classifying Madness, tells me in response to an email. "You could have cases where a 'core' biological disturbance is expressed differently in different cultures. Some have suggested that this might be the case with western-style depression and Chinese neurasthenia."
And in the end, as Dr Cooper concludes, "A biomarker can only tell you that a person is different – not whether that difference should be considered pathological." Much of mental pathology could be a consequence of culture.