Monthly Archives: March 2010

To PhD or not to PhD?

After the hours of searching on for anything remotely research assistanty, I sometimes feel so deflated that I begin to consider doing a PhD.

It seems that I think whilst running research projects for someone else would be good, would it not just be better to run one for myself? It might also mean I can actually continue to write about this science lark with a bit more credence, and feel less of a fraud.

Also there’s the fact that when I was 7 my mom said she’d buy me a Llama if I became ‘Dr Olana Banana’ so I could be a ‘Llama Farmer’ too!

Keep seeing PhD’s for epilepsy research and thinking ‘yeah, I think I could do that’. I mean what I do know is that I really, really, really don’t want to join the real world, ever if I can help it.

Will keep ‘you’ updated on my progress with this, I am very likely to change my mind.

p.s my Libel piece was published in my Uni paper today, under comment and debate. Hopefully it’ll attract a few more signatures.


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fMRI is not a ‘Brain Telescope’, yet.

The telescope was and continues to be one of the most important inventions in the study of astronomy, it led to the discovery and understanding of our entire solar system and continues to add to our knowledge of the universe!  This is because it is understood, and the methods used in the application of the telescope are designed to further our knowledge to the best of its ability. It improves over time, and in doing so allows our knowledge and understanding of some of the most unfathomable ideas about our universe to improve also. Neuroscience is not lucky enough to have a brain telescope, and the most used method of investigation in current times fMRI is far from comparable to the telescope, if anything it is more like a kaleidoscope.

Great basis for a research tool, not fully understanding it’s connection to what the ‘activity’ shown is interpret reflect and what is actually being recorded.  I suppose this is why some people call fMRI ‘the new phrenology‘?

fMRI could be equated to using a hammer to put a screw in the wall, sort of does the job but it doesn’t have much of a hold once it’s in there. There must be a better analogy out there but I just can’t think of it, perhaps it’s because if someone else or another scientific field tried to apply the same certainty to the results of a method it was using without fully understanding it they’d be laughed at. It can’t be all bad though surely, otherwise we wouldn’t be using this incredible machine for such rigorous academic investigations?

So I reckon that the general opinion people have of fMRI data is that a brightly coloured area on the brain shows an increase in some unqualified sort of ‘activity’. In fact this is exactly how it’s often reported in published (and therefore peer-reviewed) articles. It’s not just the lay persons or the humble students view, that the ‘areas that light up’ in these scans are meant to be showing which brain areas are involved in what ever process is being studied, but its more surprising that often in published work this assumption is taken for granted. What do I mean? Well yes, good question, let me explain.

Firstly, I should say that what those ‘coloured’ images are actually showing is something call the BOLD signal. This is the blood oxygen level dependent signal. It reflects changes in blood oxygen levels in particular brain regions. This is important to remember because seeing blood oxygen levels change in one area is not the same as seeing neural activity in that area. An important fact often ignored.

Not wanting to get too scientific about this, but not having much choice, what we need to consider is something called ‘neurovascular coupling‘. This refers to how neural activity relates to respiration. Neural activation of any kind requires energy, this energy comes primarily from glucose carried in cerebral blood flow, though it has been suggested that other substances such as glutamate, lactate and glutamine as well as some others, may also be oxidised by neurons (Zielke et al., 2007 in Mangia et al, 2009). Many studies have been conducted using laboratory animals that show a conclusive link between glucose consumption and localised neural activity, though the distribution of that energy consumption is far less straight forward amongst individual neural mechanisms. A study on the brains of rodents suggest that the majority of energy, up to 34% of all being used, is actually used in postsynaptic excitatory neural responses as opposed to an even distribution of  resources involving presynaptic responses, synaptic terminals and maintaining the resting potentials of the cells. In humans this proportional distribution of energy for postsynaptic events could be as high as 74% (Attwell & Laughlin, 2001). It could be that the BOLD signal is therefore most correlated to postsynaptic activity within the brain.

Sounds nice and convincing right? Well no, cause it’s also been suggested that BOLD signal might be showing presynaptic activity, particularly in the glia cells which use vast amounts of energy consumption in their active state (Jueptner & Weiller, 1995). It might seem inconsequential to worry about which bit of neural activity fMRI is showing, the beginning or the end but this is of great importance for furthering our understanding of what is actually happening.

It is also worth remembering that there is a known delay in haemodynamic response to neural activity. That is it takes a while for blood to reach an area where energy is depleted and respiration needs to occur. One way of countering this is using a particular form of analysis when looking at the raw data. Methods such as Canonical Correlation Analysis (Friman et al. 2001) not only remove a lot of the noise from fMRI data samples but also takes into account haemodynamic response delay. Good huh?

I think that it is unfair to label fMRI the new phrenology, it is by far one of the most impressive inventions of recent times and has the potential to inform us about some of the mysteries surrounding what it is to be human and how our magnificent brains work. Give it time, like the telescope, it’s design and application just need to be improved, and this takes centuries.

One day it might just reveal to us the question that gives the answer to ‘the meaning of life, the universe and everything’, if Douglas Adams was correct.

I strongly believe that the best way forward for the moment, given the lack of understanding of mechanisms such as neurovascular coupling is that fMRI analysis continues but is treated with far more caution, and that perhaps combination methods such as MEG and fMRI, or EEG and fMRI might be able to provide more accurate results about the levels and areas of activity.

Don’t always trust those pretty pictures you see, just because they look nice.

P.s and while were at it can we just call MRI by its correct acronym?? NMRI.. that would be NUCLEAR magnetic resonance imaging.  Why do we pander to the concerns a simple and correct use of that word will have on public opinion?

This is science, deal with it.

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The Curious Case of Phineas Gage.

Aged 25 and working on the US railroad in Vermont in 1848, Phineas Gage was lucky to survive when a three foot long, tampering iron was propelled through his skull! The blast was caused by Gage neglecting to place a layer of protective sand between the fuse of the dynamite and the tampering pole. Remarkably Gage survived, at the time of his injury he remained conscious and did not even report any pain. He was treated by Dr. John Martyn Harlow, who cared for him during his recovery.

Whilst Gage was recovering well physically, Dr. Harlow noticed changes in his demeanour. An extract from the Doctor’s medical notes reads,

Gage was fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage’.

It appeared that post his brain injury Gage quite literally became a new man, and this was not a change for the better. Gage died aged 37 after the onset of severe epileptic seizures, no examination of his brain took place at his death. However, his body was exhumed in order that his skull could be examined. From this it has been possible to deduce which brain areas were more likely to have been damaged, which might have implications for the role of particular areas involving personality.
It is likely that the anterior frontal cortex was most significantly damaged. It was the first real case that gave strong evidence that frontal lobes are likely to be important in aspects of human nature such as personality, decision making, and moral approach.

It seems likely now given some recent evidence that Gage did learn to adapt to the changes in his personality and those aspects reported by Harlow might have been only short term. This would be expected as generally adaptation occurs following brain injury, the brain is highly plastic in its nature, which means that even the most severe of injuries can become less impacting on mental and physical wellbeing over time.

It’s important that we remember that this is a single case study, based on evidence from well over one hundred years ago. It makes a nice story to tell in class and keeps people interested, but we aren’t studying history. There was never any real information collected based on the actual physical injuries to Gages brain, if this type of injury occurred today they could have popped him into an MRI scanner and had a proper look at what was going on. Alas, psychologists have relied on mere speculation to develop their theories of brain and personality based on Gage’s case. It is pretty bloody cool though.

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Insert [Mindblowing sounding claim from ‘Science’ with a hint of something more sinister] Here.

‘Scientists have found’, is my least favourite opening to any newspaper report about recent findings, or proposed research plans. This very sentence just sets my mind a whir, which scientists? who are they? where are they? why? and you can usually guarantee that they will get little mention by first name, unless they’re mothers all called them ‘Researchers’. You can also be pretty sure that if the wild claim in the headline has the words ‘brain scans reveal’… there will undoubtedly be a generic image of a brain scan showing nothing at all but random activations. Sometimes these images from scans don’t even match the method being used, for example a random PET scan image is used when the article is about fMRI! This infuriates me beyond belief. Why also do they insist on always asking for the opinion  of ‘an expert’ who is just some other random researcher from a completely different University who doesn’t know the study being reported or hasn’t even heard of the people conducting it.

Also a lot of the time the results of graduate/nae even some undergraduates studies are used and written about as if they are real actual science. I don’t know about anyone else and their experience of undergraduate research projects but they are far from the stringent approach you’d get with say a PHd or actual researchers work. Half the time we rely on our mates to be test subjects and when they run out, its not unheard of to just re test the same people, or even yourself! Also you can’t always guarantee that another undergrad student taking your test is of sound mind and body that morning, particularly if it’s following a heavy union night! I know of at least one case where a girl turned up to do a sensory based experiment and admitted after she was high! Cause that won’t impede the results at all… sure.

Not to mention the fact that these projects are far from the peer reviewed quality you’d see in any journal.

And one final gripe I have about the way the news report scientific findings is that it is nearly impossible to find the original source of the information because they don’t include any references to the paper they are reporting, and sometimes won’t even mention the researchers names!

Just something to try to rectify I guess, but I fear it means changing the public perception of what is a newsworthy scientific finding, cause if it’s not going to make me rich, live longer, cure cancer, cause cancer, read my mind or invade my privacy, apparently I don’t want to know about it.


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Disregarding Darwin?

Last year we had to write essays based on recent publications in Nature Neuroscience, and were then tasked with looking up the background to the paper and writing about the origin and development of the ideas being investigated by the current paper.

Most peoples essays had the format of ‘publication date of paper under disscussion- 2008, previous research it has been based on published in 2007/2005/1990. etc not much beyond 1980. My paper basically followed this pattern.. publication date 2008- previous research.. DARWIN 1872! Seriously, one of his dormant ideas has been practically over looked and not considered scientifically until now.

Susskind, J.M, Lee, D.H., Cusi, A., Feiman, R., Grabski, W., & Anderson, A.K. (2008) Expressing fear enhances sensory acquisition. Nature Neuroscience. 11 (7) pp. 843-850.

What is demonstrated here by the authors of this paper, is that the emotional facial expressions of fear and disgust modulate preparedness for perception and action by means of sensory regulation. That ‘disgust’ reduces the availability of sensory information (although not significantly in this paper) whilst ‘fear’ makes sensory acquisition far greater.  They refer to this as the sensory regulation hypothesis, it has significant links to the early ideas of Darwin on the function and form of facial expressions, but also appears in sharp contrast to the popular theories of social communication, which stipulate that facial expressions have developed as forms of non verbal communication and not as evolutionary adaptations to the situation, and therefore are not related to ones physiology. However, the sensory regulation theory of facial expression proposed here suggests another role, and has more significant links to other theories of emotion.

In ‘The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals’, Darwin (1872) states that certain mental states will lead to actions that become routine and which are of some service. This is the first principle of function. The second principle, which Darwin referred to as ‘The Principle of Antithesis’, states that when a directly opposite state of mind is experienced, then there is a ‘strong and involuntary tendency’ to perform the movements that are ‘directly opposite in nature’. This is known also as the principle of form. It is these two principles that come under direct scrutiny in the Susskind et al. (2008) paper. These two principles were examined in conjunction with the hypothesis that the form and function of the facial expression of fear has a role in augmenting  sensory vigilance.

Few, if any, studies based in neuroscience that look into facial expression have asked the question ‘why is it that specific muscle actions are associated with distinct emotional states’. Why is it that fear looks like fear, and happy looks like happy? Answering this might go hand in hand with other research that focuses on the cross-cultural universality of expression such as Ekman, 1971 and Izard, 1994. ‘Why it is that expressions appear the same universally?’ could be more accurately answered, in terms of their function related to form and origin, which would also explain the world wide commonality seen between expressions and emotions, fear and disgust are universally recognisable even by tribes with little or no western influence trying to identify expressions from images of western individuals.

In line with Darwin’s ‘Principle of Function’, the authors of this paper use this previous research to address an alternative view and build upon a gap in the research, by examining whether the creation of facial expressions can induce similar physiological manifestations of behaviour in the individual creating the expression (the sender) rather than in onlookers (the receivers).  Ekman (1999) has also explicitly written about ‘Emotion-specific physiology’  where he states that if, as Darwin suggested, emotions evolved as a means to cope with life tasks then they should not only provide information through expressions to other members of their species to indicate what is occurring, but one would also expect there to be physiological changes that ‘prepare the organism to respond differently in different emotional states’.

Although Darwin (1872) proposed hypotheses which attempted to answer the question of origin, it would appear that past research either took these hypotheses for granted over the years or disregarded them as they became more involved in researching commonalities and purposes of expression in the role of communication rather than looking at form and then relating it to the function for the individual. The reasons for this gap in research seem unclear, perhaps it is because techniques such as computer imaging, and MRI have only been developed relatively recently, and so the principles of function and form can only now be more stringently and scientifically examined and evidence to support them found.

The majority of past papers from which the research question of this paper has evolved from, regardless of differing hypothesis, all appear to share a common origin; the work of Darwin. This surely acts to highlight the significant impact an individual can have on science and the varied directions and developments that a single original idea can undergo in order to better our understanding of complex primate behaviour and cognition.

One more reason to love Darwin.


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You’re free to say what you like, but we’ll sue you for libel even if you’re right.

Why the UK libel laws are in serious need of reform.

The Big Libel Gig held in London on 14th March was far more than just a good laugh. It made me realise that anyone of us who, I don’t know, wish to pursue a career maybe in journalism, or science, or politics, or comedy, or public speaking, or even anyone who has a blog, or believes they have the right to freedom of speech, should really know a heck of a lot more about the libel laws in this country and the impact they can have on an individual before we go on to join the ‘real world’. The show was put together by the brilliant mind of comedian Robin Ince to promote the campaign for libel law reform in the UK. It comprised of some of the UK’s top comedians as well as some of the most brilliant minds in science and debate. Some of those present included, Marcus Brigstocke, Dara Ó Briain, Tim Minchin, Ed Byrne, Shappi Khorsandi, Professor Brian Cox, Professor Richard Wiseman, Dr Peter Wilmshurst , Simon Singh, who himself is currently involved in a libel case and Dr Ben Goldacre, who has also had firsthand experience of the libel law in the UK.

Why is there a libel law?

Well in short, the libel law is there to protect the reputation of an individual from an unjustified verbal attack, whilst maintaining the balance between this and the right of freedom of speech. What makes a comment be deemed as defamatory by law is any statement in a publication that could expose an individual to hatred or ridicule, cause them to be shunned, lower that person in the estimation of the minds of any ‘right thinking’ members of society, or disparage them in their line of work.

Evidently this is a very important law,  which has been put in place for the protection of a person or peoples reputation, and I should make it very clear now that the libel reform campaign has no intention at all of abolishing the law. Quite the opposite, they wish to make the system fairer and it is hoped that the campaign will bring about much needed changes to the way the law works in the UK. For example, under the current system it is possible even for people ‘accused of funding terrorism’ to be supported by the law in order to silence those who oppose them. Super injunctions mean that most of these cases are not even able to be made available to the public. There are many other aspects of the law that make its current use and application within the high court’s of the UK laughable in comparison to other countries. To illustrate the impact the current law can have let me outline the case of Simon Singh. It is this case that has really brought the need for reform into the public spotlight, the charity Sense for Science launched the petition for libel reform based on this case, and it was Simon Singh and others like him who were being personally supported by the acts who performed at the Big Libel Gig.

In 2008 journalist and author, Simon Singh published an article in the Guardian about chiropractic treatment, in which he made reference to the British Chiropractic Association. Whilst describing the BCA’s claims about the treatments of some childhood ailments, Singh wrote that ‘even though there is not a jot of evidence  ‘the BCA’ happily promotes bogus treatments’. Simon is now being sued under the libel law by the BCA for expressing his scientific opinion about their claims. It has been decided that this opinion was actually ‘written as a statement of facts’, which therefore would imply that the BCA are being dishonest, even though this was never  Simon Singh’s intention. It is interesting to note that it is Simon who is personally being sued in this case, and not the Guardian who published the article. The repercussions of this case if Singh loses are undoubtedly  highly significant. Richard Dawkins has stated that in this eventuality there would be ‘major implications on the freedom of scientists, researchers and other commentators to engage in robust criticism of scientific, and pseudoscientific, work’, I would argue that all libel cases in the last few years must have had these same implications and they will continue only to get worse if reform does not occur.

It is not just the case of Simon Singh that is of importance, there are several current libel cases that are in a very similar vein to his, as well as a large amount from the past that have had positive and not so positive outcomes. To find out more about these and more details of the campaign visit the libel reform website at  Here you can find some of the proposed changes that this campaign seeks to implement over time. Below are a selection from the ten main findings of their report along with their suggestions for reform.

  1. In libel, the defendant is guilty until proven innocent.

Recommend: Require the claimant to demonstrate damage and falsity

  1. English libel law is more about making money than saving a reputation.

Recommend: Cap damages at £10,000

  1. London has become an international libel tribunal.

Recommend: No case should be heard in this jurisdiction unless at least 10 per cent of copies of the relevant publication have been circulated here

  1. There is no robust public interest defence in libel law.

Recommend: Strengthen the public interest defence

  1. Comment is not free.

Recommend: Expand the definition of fair comment

insurance premiums non-recoverable

  1. The law does not reflect the arrival of the internet.

Recommend: Exempt interactive online services and interactive chat from liability

Whilst I know this all sounds very complicated and dull the point of the Big Libel Gig itself was to bring together a smorgasbord of talent and opinion, and brains to make the issue more accessible, and that it did. Robin Ince acted like a delightful glue holding the acts together, introducing each with an appropriate amount of admiration and mirth all evening. Understandably some of the comedians tended to focus on issues that skirted around the edge of the actual matter at hand, such as Marcus Brigstoke focusing mainly on the downfall of social communication since the advent of the iPhone. Comparing the relationship with his friends who have iPhones to the same sort of relationship a family member has with a loved one with alzehiemers: ‘they’re physically present, you can still see them and touch them, but yet they are somehow absent’! Shappi Khorsandi later shocked the crowed by announcing she was getting divorced, and she joked that it was because her husband was having an affair with his iPhone! Ed Byrne similarly admitted to knowing little about the details of the issue of libel reform (then again, how many of us can say we completely get it either?) but he did stress that in his opinion it seems wrong that a scientist wasn’t able to give his scientific opinion about something that has little or no evidence without fear of prosecution. Tim Minchin, who is always a crowd pleaser, performed his nine minute beat poem ‘Storm’, which is a beautifully constructed attack on alternative medicine relayed through the medium of song, and I recommend to anyone who’s never heard it to get on YouTube right now! (Well once you’ve done reading).

Simon Singh armed with a PowerPoint presentation involving graphs and figures, came on to discuss briefly his own experiences before revealing the exponential difference in costs of libel cases in the UK compared with other European countries, anywhere up to 140 times more expensive on average! Professor Brian Cox wowed the crowd with deep space photographs of the known universe, whilst reeling of fact after incredible fact that caused mini explosions to go off in our heads as we combined what he was saying with the immensity of the images on the screen in front of us.  Whilst moral support for Simon was raised by a ‘Simon Singh sing a long’, featuring another appearance from Mr Minchin who walked over to the mic, another glass of wine in hand, to utter the word ‘Struth’, as only an Australian can.

The case of Dr Peter Wilmshurst, was also presented as he was interviewed on stage about the impact his ongoing libel case has had on his family and work life. Dr Wilmshurt is being sued in London, by a US company over comments he made to an US journalist working for a US publication about a US trial he was involved in. This form of ‘Libel Tourism’ is also another major issue needing to be resolved. A hard act to follow was Dr Ben Goldacre, there was nothing funny about this act, no sir. As he went on to describe in detail his own libel case in which he and The Guardian were sued by Matthaias Rath, vitamin pill manufacturer based in South Africa. The seriousness of the issue was reaffirmed by Goldacre’s nicely paced delivery, even though he is usually known for his tendency to speak at somewhere close to the speed of light! Whilst the case was dropped after a year the cost of the case was in the hundreds of thousands of pounds and only a fraction of that was able to be reclaimed at the end. The cost of winning this case was a mere £170,000! Not only does a case like this cost horrendous amounts of money, but it also has a cost on the lives of those involved.

Dara O’Briain had the pleasure of following this hard hitting message, but being pressed for time as he was the last to perform he gave a speedy but wonderfully funny segment of jokes from his most recent tour. There were some great moments towards the end where he began to get excited about the anticipated laughter just before telling a joke, which reminded me of a small child eager to tell someone a secret! He brought the mood up perfectly, whilst also remembering to reinforce the message for reform.

The fact that so many people turned out to the show was highly encouraging but more needs to be done before these actions are likely to go through. It is up to us to contact our MPs (this can be done through the libel reform site and encourage them to join this campaign. With the up and coming election it is even more essential that this issue becomes party wide and is not isolated only to the minority parties. It is time that true freedom of speech was up held.

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