Sunday, October 17, 2010

Brain Science in the News - Week of 10/17/10

So many articles, so little time - here are some things I have read and wanted to share, but never got around to offering as unique posts. Enjoy.

Is killing yourself adaptive? That depends: An evolutionary theory about suicide

Oct 11, 2010

Most psychological science is the science of being and feeling like a human being, and since there is only one human being that I have or ever will have experience in being, it is not always clear to me where my career ends and my personal life begins. And this is especially salient to me right now because, like many other adult gay commentators and horrified onlookers, the raft of gay teen suicides in recent weeks has reawakened memories of my own adolescent battles with suicidal thought. There is so much I want to say about this, in fact, that I’ll be breaking this column up into two separate posts, for I’m reminded of the many illuminating theories and studies on suicide I’ve come across over the years that helped me to understand—and more importantly to overcome and to escape from—that frighteningly intoxicating desire to prematurely rid myself of a seemingly interminable hell.

If only I could have reached out and gotten hold of Tyler Clementi’s shirttail before he lunged off the George Washington Bridge, or eased my fingertips between the rope and the neck of thirteen-year-old Seth Walsh before he hanged himself from a tree in his backyard, I would have pointed out to them that, one day, they will find beauty even in this fleeting despair. I would tell them that their sexual orientation places them in the company of some of the greatest figures and secular angels in creative history—to name just a few, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Oscar Wilde, Andy Warhol, Leonardo da Vinci, Marcel Proust, Jean Genet, Hans Christian Anderson and Tchaikovsky. Finally, I’d tell them about the scientific research and ideas that I’m going to share with you, razor-sharp reasoning by bright scholars that may have pierced their suicidal cognition just enough to allow them to breathe a little more easily through those suffocating negative emotions.
Read the whole post.

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Cross-cultural personality change throughout the lifespan: a result of brain development?

It's not difficult to readily imagine the rebellious angst ridden teenager or the wise old man of very few words. McCrae, et al.’s 1999 research findings seem to have validated these prototypical depictions. They found that across various cultures (Germany, Italy, Portugal, Croatia, and South Korea) there were higher levels of neuroticism in young adults and decreases in extraversion and openness in older adults. Older adults also showed increase rates of agreeableness and conscientiousness. But why? The authors offer up some explanations such as a combination of maturational, cultural, cohort and sampling effects. They also briefly mention genetic and evolutionary influences and this is what I am particularly interested in. We know that genes are influenced by evolutionary processes and that brain development is affected by gene expression. I suggest that brain development provides the perfect explanatory mechanism for such changes in personality traits throughout the life span.
Read the whole post.

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The Neurological Origins of Religious Belief


It has been known for some time that religious belief and behavior affect the brain—in the same way all habits, emotions and memories build neural pathways. But can we pinpoint specific chemicals, genes and clusters of neurons that give rise to religiosity, or to atheism?

Rutgers University evolutionary biologist Lionel Tiger thinks we can: “Religion is really made by the brain. It is a secretion of the brain,” says Tiger, who thinks the root of religious belief is an evolutionary drive to seek this "secretion"—namely serotonin—which provides the believer with feelings of well-being. A neurotransmitter that regulates mood and appetite, serotonin is linked to feelings of well-being when it floods the central nervous system.

“One of the ways of looking at religion is to what extent and how does it generate the serotonergic juices that make us feel good,” says Tiger. Attending a religious service, for example, can be a flurry of social activity and controlled procedure, which releases a cocktail of serotonin-led neurotransmitters in the brain. This chemical response “soothes” the organ, he says, echoing the results of recent studies. Working with neuroscientist Michael McGuire, Tiger has connected this research on serotonin as it works in the brain with the social aspects and origins of religion.

Read the whole post.

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The Neurobiology of Evil


Is a person's propensity toward evil a matter of malfunctioning synapses and neurons?

Michael Stone, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and author of “The Anatomy of Evil,” says it is. Ever-more-detailed brain scans are revealing the biological origins of psychological issues in "evil" people, from those who are mildly antisocial to serial murderers.

Under each brain’s wrinkly cortex lies the limbic system, an evolutionary heirloom controlling emotion and motivation, among other functions. Within this limbic system is the amygdala, an almond-shaped cluster of nuclei that processes our feelings of fear and pleasure.

Murderers and other violent criminals have been shown to have amygdalae that are smaller or that don’t function properly, explains Stone. One recent study concluded that individuals who exhibit a marker of “limbic neural maldevelopment” have “significantly higher levels of antisocial personality, psychopathy, arrests and convictions compared with controls.”

Read the whole post.

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Dan Dennett at Harvard Law on “Free Will, Responsibility, and the Brain”

Posted by The Situationist Staff

From The Crimson:

Tufts University professor Daniel C. Dennett discussed the ways in which neuroscience may impact human understanding of moral and legal responsibility to an overflowing audience in Pound Hall at Harvard Law School yesterday.

The event, titled “Free Will, Responsibility, and the Brain,” was sponsored by the Law School’s Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS), and began with a Dilbert comic strip depicting free will as an ambiguous concept.

“It does justice to our common sense thinking about free will,” he said of the comic strip.

Dennett, who co-directs the Tufts University Center for Cognitive Studies, is best known for his arguments that human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes in the brain.

Early in the talk, Dennett asked the audience to flick their right wrists in the next ten seconds, explaining that their brains decided to perform the action a third of second before it actually occurred.

Read the whole post.

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Researchers reach consensus on use of deep brain stimulation to treat Parkinson's

Posted On: October 13, 2010

Since the late 1990s, deep brain stimulation (DBS) has proven to be a lifeline for some patients suffering from Parkinson's disease, a cruel neurological disorder that can cause lack of control over movement, poor balance and coordination, and rigidity, among other symptoms.

The procedure is used only for patients whose symptoms cannot be adequately controlled with medications. A neurosurgeon uses magnetic resonance imaging or computed tomography to identify the exact target within the brain where abnormal electrical nerve signals generate the disease's tremors and other symptoms, and a neurostimulator is then surgically implanted to deliver electrical stimulation to that area to block the signals.

The goal, ultimately, is to improve the patient's quality of life.

Yet despite its effectiveness, there has been no consensus on several aspects of the use DBS, including which patients make the best candidates, where the optimal location for the placement of electrodes is, and the role that still exists for surgical removal of the damaged areas of the brain.

Read the rest.

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