Archive for February, 2014

More beauty. Sort of.

Friday, February 28th, 2014

Just saw this little bit in Scientific American. It summarizes a study published last fall in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience by a team of Italian researchers. In the study the researchers found that stimulating the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (lDLPFC) with transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS – sorry, alphabet soup today) led to changes in their judgements of the aesthetic beauty of things they were looking at.

Specifically, the researchers had subjects rate how much they liked each of a set of paintings and photographs, then undergo either real or sham (fake) tDCS for 20 minutes, then re-rate their liking for the pictures. tDCS is a fascinating bit of cheap, simple technology that allows noninvasive stimulation of a particular bit of brain real estate, by passing a very small DC current through an electrode held against the scalp. Anyway, these folks sat and watched a movie for 20 minutes while having their left DLPFC either stimulated for real, or hooked up to a stimulator that was shut off soon after it started; then they re-rated the pictures. The result was that they liked the pictures better after real stimulation than before, but their ratings didn’t change after they received fake stimulation. Interestingly, the effect only held for representational art or photography (i.e., pictures of, you know, actual stuff), but not for abstract art. Which kind of confirms what I’ve always thought about how possible it is to actually like abstract art. Even with neuro-enhancement you can’t quite get there.

Now, the site of stimulation was particularly interesting. The left DLPFC is a favourite target for interventions aimed at increasing positive emotion. It remains the main go-to target for repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS – I know, more letters) for depression. Neurofeedback protocols aimed at increasing activation of left-hemisphere structures, and particularly the left DLPFC, have also shown promise in relieving symptoms of depression. So it seems that there’s a connection between positive affect in general and aesthetic appreciation in particular. I don’t know much about all that. But I know what I like.


Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

Here’s another infographic. This one’s on dementia, and it’s very informative. Dementia is shaping up to be the public health issue of the next several decades. We have a huge number of people entering old age in the next little while, and that means a lot of dementia. As the graphic shows, dementia requires a great deal of intensive supervision and expensive health services, not to mention a lot of patience and love on the part of family members.



Another new study shows that neurofeedback is effective for ADHD

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Here’s another study that shows how a venerable neurofeedback protocol that’s been around for quite a while (enhancing EEG wave activity in the Beta frequency while suppressing activity in the Theta frequency) reduces symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity among children with ADHD. Check it out, and take a look around the SharpBrains website while you’re at it! It’s a treasure trove of information about what works and doesn’t work when it comes to brain health and cognitive fitness.

fMRI neurofeedback for depression

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

At Choratech we do neurofeedback with EEG (electroencephalogram). Lately a number of research labs have been experimenting with using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to do neurofeedback. fMRI measures the level of blood oxygen in various brain regions from moment to moment, based on the fact that areas of the brain that are more active a require greater supply of oxygenated blood. The MRI scanner is able to sense changes in the blood oxygenation level, called the BOLD (blood-oxygen-level-dependent) response. To do neurofeedback with MRI, information about the BOLD response in a particular 3-dimensional cube of tissue in the brain is fed back to the person in the form of a graph or an animation, and he or she is instructed to change the level upward (or downward).

In this study published a few days ago in the journal PLOS One by Kymberly Young, Vadim Zotev, Raquel Phillips, Masaya Misaki, Han Yuan, Wayne Drevets and Jerzy Bodurka, a group of people who were diagnosed with depression were asked to increase BOLD activity in a 7-cubic millimetre zone corresponding to the left amygdala, while watching a bar-graph representation of the BOLD activity and thinking of a positive memory. The control group was asked to shift activity in another brain area not thought to be related to mood. The amygdala is a structure in the temporal lobe that’s critical for the processing of emotion-related information. The left one (there are two; one on the left and one on the right) has been found to be under-responsive to positive stimuli in depression and other negative mood states. The authors reasoned that increasing activity in the left amygdala might give depressed people a little lift in their mood.

This is indeed what they found. Those who successfully trained the activity of their left amygdala upward experienced an increase in mood across a single session of neurofeedback, while those asked to train a different part of the brain showed no such effect. Along with this mood shift came upward shifts in activity in several other structures besides the amygdala, including the temporal pole and the middle and superior temporal gyri on the left side.

The authors suggest on the basis of their findings that fMRI neurofeedback could become a new, non-invasive treatment for depression. This would be great, but I suggest that EEG  is far more likely to come into wide use for neurofeedback than is fMRI, for several reasons. Specifically, MRI machines are expensive, in high demand (especially here in Canada, where the government has a monopoly on the provision of health care), and cumbersome to use because they require the individual to lie perfectly still in an extremely claustrophobic and noisy scanner. Just the thing for someone who’s already feeling emotionally distraught! From a technical perspective, fMRI reacts slowly to moment-to-moment changes in brain activation due to its dependence on blood flow changes (called hemodynamics), which happen on a time scale of six to ten seconds. EEG is far less expensive (if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do!) and gives instantaneous information about brain activity, since it directly reflects the brain’s electrical activity rather than inferring it from cumulative changes in blood flow. EEG lacks the ability to create high-resolution, fine-grained images the way MRI can, but this can be gotten around in various ways, such as by using source localization techniques to locate the 3-dimensional sources of the surface-recorded EEG deep within the brain. So, outside of research labs, EEG will remain the most cost-effective and practical way of doing neurofeedback.

And now, because I can’t look at the word “amygdala” without thinking of this, here’s a picture for your edification:

Now, share this post with all your friends and leave nice (non-spam) comments, or I’ll start posting pictures of Jar Jar Binks.

Beauty, eh?

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

Here’s an interesting snippet summarizing a study recently published in Molecular Psychiatry. The study shows that stimulating the brain’s mu-opioid receptors—part of the brain’s reward system—causes young men to look longer at pictures of beautiful women, and to rate them as more beautiful, relative to pictures of plainer-looking women. One of the lovely women used in the study is shown to the left. She is pretty, ain’t she?

It’s long been known that better-looking people get all kinds of advantages in life because of their looks. They get better grades in school, better jobs, better mate choices, better treatment in the criminal justice system, etc., etc., etc. I know: not fair, right? But who said life was fair?

The idea of the study is that the brain finds it rewarding to behold beauty, and our appreciation of beauty is partially mediated by activation of a more general brain system for reward. This research is an example of what is called “evolutionary psychology”, which is a branch of the discipline that concerns itself with explaining, in evolutionary terms, how things came to be the way they are now. Evolutionary psychology kicks up some really interesting findings from time to time. It has some clear weaknesses, though, not least of which is that it isn’t really science, in the sense that there is no way of empirically verifying something purported to have happened millions of years ago. It also tends, in my opinion, to be too post-hoc and reductionistic in its approach, in that it views everything about our neurological and psychological architecture as existing only because it allowed our ancestors to (a) not get eaten, and (b) mate a lot, like, the more the better. Features of human psychology, and even human social structures, are then explained—you might even say explained away—in terms of how they must have given rise to more survival and more reproduction.

In the case of this study, it remains to be explained why a beautiful person, or a beautiful proto-human-hominid-thing, with whom to mate is any more desirable from the standpoint of transmission of one’s genes than is a mate who is ugly, say, but physically robust and healthy.

I prefer to think of this research finding in terms of the philosophical Transcendentals, universal goods among which are numbered three really big ones: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. We don’t only love beauty, but truth and goodness as well. Why are we attracted to these things instinctively and naturally, as intrinsic goods? It’s hard to imagine how this attraction could have conferred what the evolutionists would consider a selective advantage for some of our forebears over others. I say, it’s just built into us, and explicable not fully or even primarily in terms of what brought it about, but where it’s going: our desires are ordered toward beauty because Beauty is something that is valuable for its own sake, because it answers something deep in our nature, something that calls us outside of ourselves to larger things. Put another way, Beauty is something we’re tending toward, rather than simply being something that explains where we came from, or how we got to where we are.

It would be interesting to see whether the same findings would hold in the case of beholding something beautiful other than a woman. In that case it would be clear that not only female-as-prospective-mating-partner beauty is compelling and rewarding to behold, but beauty qua beauty.