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Posts published during 2012


Depth Perception

Embed not working well – click the Youtube logo to watch it there – it’s worth it….

Bad-Pharma1A book published by Ben Goldacre this year has drawn attention to the fact that drug trials producing negative or nil results are simply not published, thereby making the drugs appear to be more successful than they really are. Goldacre is spearheading a movement to force drug companies into publishing all their results and ensuring that there is free access to such data. (Most research on the effectiveness of drug treatments is funded and controlled by the drug companies).

One example of the effects of such non-reporting was  mentioned in an article by Irving Kirsch (here). The effectivness of drug treatments is often assessed by making comparisons between a drug-treatment group and a group of patients receiving a placebo. Meta-analyses of antidepressant medications have reported only modest benefits over placebo treatment. However, when unpublished trial data are included, the benefit falls to almost nothing.

Recently published research here in the UK has thrown up yet another problem with taking benzodiazepines – an increased risk of developing pneumonia, and of dying from it. Benzodiazepines are typically prescribed for the treatment of anxiety, panic attacks and insomnia and so are a common way of managing the debilitating effects of stress.

Dr Robert Sanders and his team from University College London analysed the health records of almost 5,000 British patients with a reported diagnosis of pneumonia that had occurred between 2001 and 2002. They then compared these patients with a control group, matched for age and sex that had no history of pneumonia.

Sanders’ team compared the use of benzodiazepines in both groups. The findings indicated that the chronic use of benzodiazepines within the first group was associated with a 54 percent increased risk of developing pneumonia. Further analysis of the data revealed that the risk of dying within a month of being diagnosed with pneumonia was 22 percent higher among people taking benzodiazepines and 32 percent higher within three years after diagnosis. Read the rest of this entry »

Last night’s Panorama programme was a fascinating insight into research by Professor Owen, a British neuroscientist, with uncommunicative, severely brain-injured patients in Britain and Canada.

For the first time, patients in persistently vegetative states have been able to give answers clinically relevant to their care.  It was fascinating and really moving programme, showing that some patients can answer yes/no questions by imagining particular scenarios – such as playing tennis. This thought process stimulates certain brain activity which can be detected and analysed in scans.

For more information, here’s the bbc news link, which includes details about the research. And the iPlayer link


As it is the season of spooks, Michael Marshall of the Merseyside Skeptics Society conducted a test of the psychic abilities of two professional and highly experienced mediums (see report here). The test was similar to one used by O’Keefe and Wiseman (see page 267 of the A2 Complete Companion). Each psychic produced a reading for each of five sitters, all were women and aged between 18 and 30. The sitter was behind a screen and was instructed to think about the kind of issues they might expect a psychic to tell them about. The psychics wrote down their impression of the sitter, and were told especially to include anything that would help the sitter recognise themselves in the reading. Both psychics said beforehand that they were totally confident that the test was a fair test of their abilities and afterwards also reported high levels of confidence in their readings.

Each sitter was shown all five readings and asked to identify which one was their own. None of them correctly identified their own reading. Furthermore the sitters were asked to rate each reading for accuracy on a scale of 1 to 10 (where 10 is totally Read the rest of this entry »

Tickets still available for the exciting conference in March with …

PROF ELIZABETH LOFTUS (and also PROF DAVID WILSON) March 19 or March 20 (nearly sold out). Make your reservations now, no deposit required, pay February 1st. Full details here

Also – there is a CPD EVENT with Prof Loftus, see here

And finally, there is still time to fix up a trip for the wildly popular ‘SCIENCE & PSEUDOSCIENCE‘ Bristol (Nov 12), Nottingham (Nov 13), Manchester (Nov 14), Edinburgh (Nov 19) and London (Nov 20)

To see more about OCD Awareness Week link

Here’s an interesting application of understanding stress. People who have spinal injuries usually lose control of their autonomic nervous system as well as their limbs, which means that their bodies do not respond to stress signals from the brain in the same way that normal people do – ‘normally’ an athlete, at the start of a race feels increased anxiety and the hypothalamus sends signals to the body to be prepared for fight/flight. Such arousal is important to perform well.

The bodies of people with spinal injuries don’t respond to such signals, so they have turned to a practice called ‘boosting’, where they intentionally break their toe or sit on their scrotum or something to generate pain signals that will kick start their body’s reaction to stress. The person will not feel any pain but blood pressure and heart rate will increase and performance improves. Not surprisingly the International Olympics committee has banned boosting for obvious health reasons. The problem is that some paralympic sports competitors don’t have injuries that disable their autonomic nervous systems so there are unfair disadvantages for those athletes. Nothing is simple.

This week there was a programme on TV about The Boy who can’t forget (see here), about people who remember everything. They’re not the only ones with special recall. There are also people who don’t forget faces, they recognise anyone they have ever met (see Caroline Williams ‘Face savers’, New Scientist, September 15). It has been estimated that about 2% of the population have such super abilities for faces – about the same percentage as people who experience face blindness (prosopagnosia) which is the inability to recognise faces.

Research suggests that thesesuper recognisers don’t have especially superior memories nor are they better than average at object recognition. It appears they just have a special talent for recognising faces, which could be very useful in the police force. For example after the recent riots in London, police had to sift through thousands of fuzzy CCTV photos trying to recognise suspects. Super recognisers found it relatively easy to identify suspects in the CCTV footage.

The study of super recognisers can shed light on the way we process faces, and may even help understanding prosopagnosia. It seems that super recognisers use their brain differently, processing the whole face rather than individual components whereas the opposite is true for prosopagnosics. Studies using local and global letters are used to test this whole versus individual processing (see right). Participants are asked to read the large letter and end do this more slowly in the incongruent condition shown on the right. Prosopagnosics don’t show this slowing down, possibly because they don’t process at a global level (see page 43 of the A2 Complete Companion). Research is currently underway to see what happens when super recognisers try this task.

In the search to explain why some people become addicted while others don’t, one answer has been that some people have an addictive personality i.e. they are just more likely to become addicted. Support for this idea comes from the phenomenon of ‘addiction transfer’, described in a recent article by Samantha Murphy in the New Scientist (8 September 2012). Addiction transfer refers to the phenomenon that an addict may manage to overcome one addiction but then develops another as a kind of substitute. The addict appears to need to have an addiction. Accidental evidence for addiction transfer comes from studies of people who have undergone weight loss surgery. Overeating can be regarded as a kind of addiction and weight loss surgery cuts obese people off from their original addiction. Researchers estimate that about 15-30% of those who have undergone weight loss surgery transfer to a new addiction.

The explanation outlined in Murphy’s article is that addiction activates the brain reward system and, when this activation stops, the person looks for something else to maintain activity within this reward system. The genetic link in the addiction transfer explanation is that some people are born with lower levels of D2 receptors, resulting in lower levels of dopamine in the reward system. Addiction behaviour has the effect of increasing their dopamine levels, thus explaining why some people are more prone to becoming addicted. Critically this explains why some people, once they have experienced an addiction, need to continue some kind of addictive behaviour if the original one stops.