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General interest items edited by Janice Flahiff

[News article]What makes peaceful neighbours become mass murderers : Nature News & Comment

What makes peaceful neighbours become mass murderers : Nature News & Comment.

From the 11 May 2015 news item

It’s time to ask uncomfortable questions about the brain mechanisms that allow ‘ordinary’ people to turn violent, says Itzhak Fried.

What happens in the brains of people who go from being peaceable neighbours to slaughtering each other on a mass scale? Back in 1997, neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried at the University of California, Los Angeles, conscious of the recent massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda, described this switch in behaviour in terms of a medical syndrome, which he called ‘Syndrome E’ 2. Nearly 20 years later, Fried brought sociologists, historians, psychologists and neuroscientists together at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Paris to discuss the question anew. At the conference, called ‘The brains that pull the triggers‘, he talked to Nature about the need to consider this type of mass murder in scientific as well as sociological terms, and about the challenge of establishing interdisciplinary dialogue in this sensitive area.

What are the main features of the syndrome?

There was a myth that the primitive brain is held in check by our more-recently evolved prefrontal cortex, which is involved in complex analysis, and that the primitive, subcortical part takes over when we carry out brutal crimes such as repetitive murder. But I saw it the other way around. The signs and symptoms that I gathered in my research indicated that the prefrontal cortex, not the primitive brain, was responsible, because it was no longer heeding the normal controls from subcortical areas. I called it ‘cognitive fracture’ — the normal gut aversions to harming others, the emotional abhorrence of such acts, were disconnected from a hyper-aroused prefrontal cortex. I also proposed a neural circuitry in the brain that could perhaps account for this. In brief, specific parts of the prefrontal cortex become hyperactive and dampen the activity of the amygdala, which regulates emotion.

If mass murder happens because of activity in the brain, what does this say about personal responsibility?

Perpetrators of repeated killings have the capacity to reason and to solve problems — such as how best practically to kill lots of people rapidly. Proposing the existence of a syndrome does not absolve them of responsibility.

May 19, 2015 Posted by | Medical and Health Research News | , , , , | Leave a comment

[Press release] Lucid dreams and metacognition: Awareness of thinking — awareness of dreaming

Lucid dreams and metacognition: Awareness of thinking — awareness of dreaming

Excerpt

January 20, 2015

To control one’s dreams and to live out there what is impossible in real life – a truly tempting idea. Some persons – so-called lucid dreamers –can do this. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin and the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich have discovered that the brain area which enables self-reflection is larger in lucid dreamers. Thus, lucid dreamers are possibly also more self-reflecting when being awake.
Sagittal human brain with cortical regions del...

Sagittal human brain with cortical regions delineated. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lucid dreamers are aware of dreaming while dreaming. Sometimes, they can even play an active role in their dreams. Most of them, however, have this experience only several times a year and just very few almost every night. Internet forums and blogs are full of instructions and tips on lucid dreaming. Possibly, lucid dreaming is closely related to the human capability of self-reflection – the so-called metacognition.

Neuroscientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry have compared brain structures of frequent lucid dreamers and participants who never or only rarely have lucid dreams. Accordingly, the anterior prefrontal cortex, i.e., the brain area controlling conscious cognitive processes and playing an important role in the capability of self-reflection, is larger in lucid dreamers.

The differences in volumes in the anterior prefrontal cortex between lucid dreamers and non-lucid dreamers suggest that lucid dreaming and metacognition are indeed closely connected. This theory is supported by brain images taken when test persons were solving metacognitive tests while being awake. Those images show that the brain activity in the prefrontal cortex was higher in lucid dreamers. “Our results indicate that self-reflection in everyday life is more pronounced in persons who can easily control their dreams,” states Elisa Filevich, post-doc in the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.

The researchers further want to know whether metacognitive skills can be trained. In a follow-up study, they intend to train volunteers in lucid dreaming to examine whether this improves the capability of self-reflection.

 

January 26, 2015 Posted by | Psychiatry, Psychology | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

[Press Release] New evidence on the biological basis of highly impulsive and aggressive behaviors

This raises an interesting question, if those convicted of crimes should not be punished due to their biology, should they just be set free? Or should they be required to undergo therapy/treatments that might not be evidence-based? Or are other alternatives available?

 

From the 10 November 2013 Neuroscience 2013, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience press release as reported by EurkAlert

For want of a receptor: Some behaviors shaped during early development

SAN DIEGO — Physical and chemical changes in the brain during development can potentially play a role in some delinquent and deviant behaviors, according to research released today. Studies looking at the underlying mechanisms that influence our ability to exercise self-control were presented at Neuroscience 2013, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.

Understanding the impact of changes in specific prefrontal regions during brain development could lead to new treatments and earlier interventions for disorders in which impulsivity plays a key factor. The research may have implications for understanding and dealing with aggressive and troublesome behaviors.

Today’s new findings show that:

  • The absence of serotonin receptors during early development leads to highly aggressive and impulsive behaviors in mice. Impulsivity, but not aggression, returns to normal levels by reintroducing the receptors (Katherine Nautiyal, PhD, abstract 754.07, see attached summary).
  • Adolescents react more impulsively to danger than adults or children, and the prefrontal cortex works harder to exert control over impulsive responses to threatening cues (Kristina Caudle, PhD, abstract 852.14, see attached summary).

Other recent findings discussed show that:

  • Weak control of the brain’s prefrontal cortex (which monitors personality, decision-making, and self-restraint) over regions associated with reward and motivation could explain the lack of self-control experienced by anti-social individuals (Joshua Buckholtz, PhD, presentation 194.01, see attached speaker summary).
  • Criminal defendants increasingly use brain science to explain their actions, pointing to brain scans and the scientific literature for evidence that brain impairments affect behavior. This is impacting how the legal system assigns responsibility and punishment for criminal wrongdoing in the United States (Nita Farahany, JD, PhD, presentation 301, see attached speaker summary).

“Our deeper understanding of the origins of delinquent behavior can be a double-edged sword,” said press conference moderator BJ Casey, PhD, of Weill Cornell Medical College, an expert in attention, behavior, and related brain disorders. “While we’re making tremendous gains in neuroscience that should lead to improved treatments, our biological insights also have implications for criminal cases and the judicial process that we need to understand.”

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This research was supported by national funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, as well as private and philanthropic organizations. More information about behavior and the brain can be found at BrainFacts.org.

 

November 11, 2013 Posted by | Psychiatry | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Even Mild Stress Can Make It Difficult to Control Your Emotions

From the 26 August 2013 Science Daily article

Even mild stress can thwart therapeutic measures to control emotions, a team of neuroscientists at New York University has found. Their findings, which appear in the journalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, point to the limits of clinical techniques while also shedding new light on the barriers that must be overcome in addressing afflictions such as fear or anxiety.

“We have long suspected that stress can impair our ability to control our emotions, but this is the first study to document how even mild stress can undercut therapies designed to keep our emotions in check,” said Elizabeth Phelps, a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science and the study’s senior author. “In other words, what you learn in the clinic may not be as relevant in the real world when you’re stressed.”

In addressing patients’ emotional maladies, therapists sometimes use cognitive restructuring techniques — encouraging patients to alter their thoughts or approach to a situation to change their emotional response. These might include focusing on the positive or non-threatening aspects of an event or stimulus that might normally produce fear.

 

Read the entire article here

 

August 28, 2013 Posted by | Psychiatry, Psychology | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Early Social Deprivation Impairs Long-Term Cognitive Function

 

Brain structures involved in dealing with fear...

Brain structures involved in dealing with fear and stress. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

From the 17 September 2012 article at Medical News Today

 

A growing body of research shows that children who suffer severe neglect and social isolation have cognitive and social impairments as adults. A study from Boston Children’s Hospital shows, for the first time, how these functional impairments arise: Social isolation during early life prevents the cells that make up the brain’s white matter from maturing and producing the right amount of myelin, the fatty “insulation” on nerve fibers that helps them transmit long-distance messages within the brain…

When isolation occurred during a “critical period,” starting three weeks after birth, cells called oligodendrocytes failed to mature in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region important for cognitive function and social behavior. As a result, nerve fibers had thinner coatings of myelin, which is produced by oligodendrocytes, and the mice showed impairments in social interaction and working memory.

 

 

September 17, 2012 Posted by | Consumer Health, Psychology | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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