Post Of The Week – Saturday 10th January 2015

1) Connectome

We have a look at the work of Sebastian Seung when we study the multistore model of memory. His big idea is that we are our connectome. In other words, it is how neurons are connected in our brains which make us who we are. He’s just published a book about his ideas. Here’s a review from Mo Costandi here.

Costandi’s view is that the connectome may not tell us as much about us as Seung makes out. There’s an interesting email response from one of Costandi’s former mentors which is quite surprising.

2) Transporters

We’ve looked at this in the past in the context of methods used to teach children with autism to understand the point of view of someone else. This is now licensed to the Autism Research Trust which supports the work of the Autism Research Centre led by Simon Baron-Cohen. You can see how Transporters works by clicking on the link.

3) Cut Back On Sugar

This news story appeared this week. The advice is pretty straightforward. What’s interesting is the rationale behind it. The article states

“Eating too much sugar can lead to obesity which can cause heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes in later life.”

The big question is whether it is the calories in sugar which lead people to put on weight or whether it is the biochemical effects of sugar which create both Type 2 diabetes and excess weight. It is a question of whether a calorie is just a calorie. By coincidence, I was doing my weekly online grocery shop this week with a well known supermarket. The website told me that the cranberry juice drink I was buying has a lower sugar “healthy” version. I would rather my children consumed sugar than a chemical sweetener with no nutritional value.

4) Depression As A Consequence Of Inflammation

Some researchers are pursuing the idea that Depression is primarily a physical illness. It is obvious really. When people get ill, their bodies slow down in order for them to get well. The particular focus is on the effects of inflammation, a process which helps the body defend itself against infection. The details are here.

This article made me think about the Brown and Harris research which locates Depression in the experiences of young women looking after children by themselves in a deprived area of south London. Stress, social isolation and poor diet are both symptomatic of contemporary experience and central factors in this theory based on inflammation. Here is Nova from PBS covering the same research.

5) Heroin And Vietnam

A longstanding mystery of research concerning addiction concerns US service personnel who became addicted to heroin while stationed in Vietnam. Addiction to heroin is supposed to be a powerful biological process which is very hard to reverse. However, there are many well documented cases of people who returned from Vietnam and simply stopped being addicted.

This article and accompanying radio report from NPR uses this experience as a starting point for exploring how environment shapes behaviour. The obvious place where this has implications is for public health campaigns targeted at smoking and obesity. These focus on changing attitudes and intentions. What seems to matter more is to change the environment, disrupting routines sufficiently for the conscious mind to take control.

6) Weight Loss Drug

Here’s a newspaper report about a drug which appears to work on the gut and to alter signals of satiation.

The interest here is whether a drug which seems to work on mice has any chance of success with people.

7) The City On The Couch

For workplace stress in AS Psychology, we look at Michael Marmot’s research on status syndrome. The idea is that people at the bottom of organisations get more stressed and therefore more ill because they experience low control in their work and high demand.

This programme focuses on high earners in the city. Its contention is that for all sorts of reasons, people earning big money in large businesses are at particular risk of getting mentally ill. There is something peculiarly toxic about this environment. The programme looks at what is being done about changing the culture and offering people both the psychiatric help they need and an environment which enables them to flourish.

As a commentary on this, research published this week looks at the effect of being connected outside office hours on the well-being of workers. Being able access work email and networks gives the illusion of control but may be doing more harm than good.–+ScienceDaily%29

8) Serotonin Map

Our understanding of the effect of antidepressant drugs is based on a paradox. On the one hand, anti-depressant drugs which work on the serotonin system clearly do something to alleviate Depression. On the other hand, there is a time lag between starting to take the drugs and seeing a reduction of depressive symptoms. There must be more to Depression than serotonin. The obvious thing to do is to try to map the effects of serotonin in the brain. If you can understand what it is doing, you can understand how it connects up with other systems in the brain to form what we recognise as the symptoms of Depression.

This article explains how this might work, based on a study of mice. Questions which should have been answered a long time ago are finally being addressed.

9) Peer Review

We have just been looking at the role of peer review in validating new knowledge. Research does not get published unless the person or people who carried out submit to their peers to see what they think. What I hadn’t realised was that peer review is involved much earlier in the process. Researchers do not get funding to carry out their work unless their proposals are peer-reviewed. This article explains some of the vagaries of this system.

10) Ketamine Again

I have blogged on here before about the controversy surrounding research into ketamine as a possible antidepressant. It is controversial because ketamine is a banned substance with known hallucinogenic effects. It is not obvious why it should be used as an antidepressant.

This article explains that ketamine is still being researched and that there may be good reasons for why it might work. It is said to affect the glutamate pathway which is involved in language and cognition.

11) Sexual Infidelity

In reviewing evolutionary explanations of human reproductive behaviour, we look at evidence about infidelity. Buss (1993) found that males became most distressed at the image of their partner being sexually unfaithful whereas women became most distressed at the idea of their partner in love with someone else.

This study, based on a large questionnaire survey, found the same as Buss. What’s interesting here is that the roots of this difference are seen to be in cultural norms rather than biological differences.

12) More Re-evaluation Of Milgram

The way in which textbooks normally report findings in Milgram’s study is to divide participants into those that obeyed and those that did not. This masks the fact that those who count as obedient went some way to resist the instructions they were given. Now an American researcher, Matthew Hollander, has gone through transcripts of Milgram’s experiments to look at ways in which people tried to resist. These are reported here.

This becomes important because if we can understand the strategies which people tried and which failed in resisting the pressure to obey, we can equip people to be better able to deal with situations where they have to obey orders they consider unjust.

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