Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Herman Cain --- Two Views

11/30/11. On the drive into work today, I heard an interview on NPR about Herman Cain. One person interviewed was a pastor, and he offered his opinion about the morality of what Cain thought he was able to get away with. The other person interviewed was the CEO of a Web site that arranges affairs between married people --- who thought moral judgments should not apply to Mr. Cain.

What do you think? 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Great Global Warming Fizzle

11/29/11. Some say global warning attracts a religious following. When is that last time a religious group disbanded for lack of evidence supporting the tenets of their beliefs?

Inflating Your IQ

11/29/11. Charting our IQs started in the early 1900's with the invention of tests to measure children's progress in school. These tests proved necessary because relying on teachers' judgements were often misguided. The standard IQ test measures verbal reasoning, perceptual organization, working memory, and visual processing. Much can be learned from an IQ assessments in the diagnosis and treatment of psychological disorders and learning disabilities. As yet, we have no valid measures for creativity.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Joshua Walters: On being just crazy enough

11/21/11. Joshua Walters - a self-described bipolar comedian - gives a provocative talk about mental illness and creativity.

Alexander Tsiaras: Conception to Birth - Visualized

11/21/11. A magical, visual tour of the unfolding of the genetic blueprints of a human being - to marvelous for words.

Jonah Lehrer: How Does Prozac Work?

11/21/11.  Is our brain to complicated to imagine?

What’s the point of neuroscience? Why do we spend billions of dollars investigating those three pounds of flesh inside the head? Sure, human nature is interesting, and self-knowledge is a virtuous pursuit, but let’s be honest: we study the brain because we don’t want to die. Because we want cures for awful afflictions. Because we’re desperate to avoid depression and addiction and dementia. The only way to justify the terrific expense of biomedical research is medicine.
Here’s the bad news: I think neuroscience has yet to deliver on its therapeutical potential. We’ve learned an astonishing amount about the brain in recent years – a ten year old textbook is totally obsolete – but all this shiny new knowledge has yet to heal us. As a result, we’re still stuck with pills and treatments that are frustratingly ineffective.
Consider depression. Every year, approximately 7 percent of us will be afflicted to some degree by the awful mental state that William Styron described as a “gray drizzle of horror . . . a storm of murk.” This is a big societal problem, which is why 24.4 million prescriptions were filled for fluoxetine (the generic version of Prozac) in 2010 in America.
The first thing to say about fluoxetine is that it’s an old drug, having been introduced in the early 1970s. (Like many medical treatments, it was discovered largely by accident, when researchers realized that a common anti-histamine had anti-depressant properties.) Until recently, scientists assumed they knew how fluoxetine/Prozac worked. The story was simple: depression results from a neurotransmitter imbalance in the brain, in which patients suffer from a shortage of chemical happiness. The little blue pills cheer us up because they give the brain what it has been missing – a dose of serotonin.
There’s only one problem with this theory of anti-depressants: it’s almost certainly wrong, or at the very least woefully incomplete. Experiments have since shown that lowering people’s serotonin levels does not make them depressed, nor does it worsen their symptoms if they are already depressed. And then there’s the “Prozac lag”: although anti-depressants increase the amount of serotonin in the brain within hours, their beneficial effects are not usually felt for weeks.
Despite our causal ignorance, anti-depressants remain an essential balm for millions of people, allowing them to escape from that recursive loop of woe. And yet, it’s also clear that anti-depressants are
often disturbingly ineffective and, in many clinical trials, appear little better than a placebo. (See Irving Kirsch for a partiuclarly critical take.)
Furthermore, even when the drugs prove effective, their efficacy remains mysterious. Although there are some exciting new hypotheses about the power of Prozac – I’m particularly interested in the neurogenesis story – we still don’t understand why this category of drugs is the best we’ve got, even after forty years of well funded R&D. (Of course, this mystery hasn’t interfered with the popularity of the pills: As Schopenhauer once noted, people tend to treat causes “like a hired cab that one dismisses when one reaches the destination.” All we really care about is the health benefit – the causal story is just a sales ploy, a way to reassure patients that our success isn’t dumb luck, even when it is.)
And this returns us to the current state of neuroscientific research into depression. Last week, the field recieved a jolt of bad news: a hyped new compound from Glaxo (GSK372475) proved utterly useless. In two well done clinical trials, the drug failed to make people feel better.
Why is this news? Drugs fail all the time. (According to one recent analysis, more than 40 percent of drugs fail Phase III clinical trials. The odds are even worse for brain pills.) What makes the dismissal of GSK372475 noteworthy is that it looked so good on paper. The molecule is a potent triple reuptake inhibitor (TRI), blocking the breakdown of serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine. While Prozac only alters serotonin, other successful anti-depressants, such as venlafaxine, block the reuptake of serotonin and noradrenaline. So it seemed like a good idea to also interfere with the reuptake of dopamine, especially since decades of research have suggested that more dopamine in the synapse is reliably associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. (Why do you think cocaine feels nice?) Although we still don’t understand how blocking the reuptake of various neurotransmitters cheers us up, we have yet to improve on that mechanism of action, which is why drug companies are still investing in expensive clinical trials for reuptake inhibitors.
But that logic didn’t pan out. Not only did depressed patients on GSK372475 get better more slowly than those on placebo, they were also hit with a bevy of side-effects, including insomnia and nausea.
Pharmaceutical failures like this are a sobering reminder that the brain and its afflictions remain deeply mysterious. Despite the billions of dollars poured into depression research, we still don’t understand the causal mechanisms of the illness, which means we don’t even know which drug actions to screen for. We can’t even imitate our past successes.
Given such struggles, it’s not surprising that drug companies are dramatically scaling back research into the brain. (Most recently, four leading drug firms, including Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, announced that they were cutting neuroscience R&D. They cited the disconnect between scientific funding and pharmaceutical sucess.) The organ is simply too complicated, too full of networks and pathways we don’t comprehend.
I don’t want to overdo the pessimism – betting against science is a losing game. But I think we need to be honest about the payoff of basic research, at least so far. We’ve learned so much, but we have yet to learn what really matters, whether it’s the neural underpinnings of depression or the triggers of Alzheimer’s or the genetic snippets behind, well, everything. The brain isn’t just complicated – it seems to be more complicated than we can imagine.
So how does Prozac work? The sad answer is that we’re still not sure. And that means we don’t know how to come up with something better.
PS. The Neuroskeptic has a typically great post on the failed trial.

Woody Allen, American Master

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Metapsychology: Book Reviews

11/19/20. A Web site of reviews of psychology books.

Medication for Mental Health

11/19/11. Sometimes psychiatric medication is essential for psychological treatment. For example, people with major depressive disorder, ADHD, and anxieties often benefit from medication.

Psychological therapy is often a crucial component of effective psychological treatment. Many people take psychiatric medication --- for a while --- give up, and never reap the benefits of psychological therapy.

For some people, until we have biological markers for psychological disorders, no amount of research and clinical knowledge will propel people to get the psychological treatment they need.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Mrs. Radosh and Hyman.


Mrs. Radosh says to the rabbi, My husband keeps shrinking! When we married he was five foot eight, and now he’s five foot four. Can you say a blessing for him?

Of course: May he live to be four foot ten.

God agrees to grant Hyman a wish, with the condition that whatever he asks for, his brother-in-law will get double.

Okay, Hyman says,  I wish I were half-dead.

Rethinking Thinking

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Wrong Inequality

11/6/11. David Brooks describes the complexity of inequality.
There is not only income inequality - a serious problem - but also educational and social inequality.
There are no easy answers.

David Eagleman: Your Brain Knows a Lot More Than You Realize

11/6/11. Your consciousness or "I" feel likes your driver. For much of your experience, you are the passenger with your unconscious mind at the wheel.

Video Interview with Walter Mischel and David Brooks

11/6/11. David Brooks is a journalist as rare as a Rabbi in Mecca who writes a regular column in the New York Times. Much of his interest focuses on social science applications to practical problems. Walter Mischel is one of the giants in the field of social psychology most famous for his two marshmallows study illustrating the roots of self-control.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Book Review. "A Point in Time: The Search for Redemption in This Life and the Next," by David Horowitz.

11/4/11. David Horowitz took three years to write an elegant, short book drawing from his experience and from the works of Marcus Aurelius and Dostoevsky.  In his youth, Horowitz was a political radical. After his secretary was murdered by the Black Panthers, he began to rethink his ideology. Horowitz is now a political conservative, and understands --- like few people do --- the utopian horrors of his youth.
He meditates on the meaning of life - and death.

When Geeks Meet

Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin of Sascha) draws on his research on autism to predict  what kind of parents produce autistic kids.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Profile of Michael Gazzaniga: Neuroscientist

11/2/11. Professor Gazzaniga' s research has enlightened our minds on such topics as split/brain surgery, the role of the interpreter, and the ethics of neuroscience findings defining the concepts of free-will, responsibility, and accountability.