Archive for March, 2015

How Placebos Could Change Research and Practice

March 29, 2015

The title was on the cover of the April 2015 Monitor on Psychology of the American Psychological Association.  Inside the issue was an article by Stacy Lu, “Great expectations:  New research is leading to an understanding of how placebos work—findings that may lead to more effective treatments and better drug research.  Our understanding and attitudes towards placebos is advancing.

In one study neuroscience researcher Shaffer and his colleagues asked participants to apply a “powerful analgesic” on their hands and arms.  Then the researchers administered small bursts of heat where the cream had been applied.  The cream was actually petroleum jelly, but participants reported that the s-called powerful cream protected them from feeling as much of a burn  as a control cream.  Even after the researchers showed them that the active cream was just petroleum jelly, it made little difference.  The participants still reported less pain from the heat when they were re-tested versus the control cream (The Journal of Pain, 2015).

Today scientists are studying  placebos as a psychobiological  phenomenon and the placebo response as a potentially important part of the success of many medical treatments.  Psychological assessments, brain scans, and genotyping are used  to understand better how placebo responses work and to identify who may be most likely to respond to them.  Placebos are similar to cognitive therapies in that they tap into people’s beliefs that there’s hope and that they will get better.

A meta-analysis of 25 neuroimaging studies of pain and placebos conducted by Wager and Atlas of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) found that people who took placebos and expected have reduced pain had less activity in brain regions associated with pain processing, including the dorsal anterior cingulate, thamalus, and insula (Handbook of Experimental Pharmacology, 2014).

Research suggests that placebos have the greater effect in neural systems involved with processing reward seeking, motivation, and emotion.  Placebos seem to work especially well in patients with depression, Parkinson’s disease, and pain.  All three conditions involve the neurotransmitter dopamine.  These are also areas where people can consciously monitor their own treatment results.

In a study of patients with Parkinson’s disease Wager and colleagues found that simply expecting medication altered brain activity in the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex in brain areas associated with reward learning in ways similar to actual dopaminergic medication (Nature Neuroscience, 2014).

In another study of people with migraines, placebos elicited a response without any verbal cue to effectiveness,   Slavenka Kam-Hansen and colleagues openly labeled placebo pills for some patients who reported as much pain relief as those who also got a placebo but had been told that they’d received real medication. (Science Translational Medicine, 2014).

Genetics research has found that participants with a specific genotype related to having more dopamine in the prefrontal cortex reported having a larger effect from a placebo  treatment  than participants with a genotype that produces less dopamine in the prefrontal cortex (PLOS ONE, 2012).

Children seem to respond especially well to placebos.  In one study their placebo response was 5.6 that of adults (The Journal of Pain, 2014).

Patients are interested and enthusiastic about placebo  treatments.  They are pleased to discover that they can contribute to their own healing.

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Wired Millennials Still Prefer the Printed Word

March 27, 2015

This is the title to a front page article n the February 23 Washington Post written by Michael S. Rosenwald.  This took me by surprise.  I am a Baby Boomer and I am transitioning to the iPAD and loving it.  According to the article 87% of college textbooks were print books.  I can understand why there would be a preference for conventional textbooks.  But the article also said that they preferred conventional books for fiction.  The immediately preceding healthy memory blog post did state that people have a more difficult time following plots in electronic media.  My experience here is just the opposite, I prefer my iPAD for fiction.    One of my primary motivations for moving to electronic media is logistical.  There no longer are adequate  bookcases for shelving.   That plus the ease in carrying an electronic library with one strongly motivates me, but apparently most students still prefer schlepping their books in backpacks.  The more I use electronic media, the more accessible it becomes.  And I am fairly confident that electronic books in the future will develop features that make them even easier to use.

The Post article indicated that millennials tend to skim electronic media.
Apparently the vast amount of material on the web causes people to skim so they have developed bad habits.  I found this alarming as the nature of the media should not determine how fast one reads.  Rather the nature/difficulty of the content should determine reading speed so that one is processing the material to its appropriate depth.  And, when necessary, material should be reread.  I get a charge out of speed reading courses that promise reading speed of x words per minute.  These promised speeds need to include the nature of the material being read.  There is material that, no matter how slowly I read, I .  am unable to comprehend. So here are my words of advice from a Baby Boomer to all Millennials.  Regardless of the medium, adjust your reading speed to achieve the level of comprehension you want to achieve

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Ipad for Transactive Memory

March 25, 2015

Remember that transactive memory consists of all memory that is resident outside of ourselves. So memories held by our fellow beings are part of transactive memory. Memories resident in technology, be it paper or electronic, are all types of transactive memory. Unfortunately, one of my many shortcomings is my lack of systems for organizing my information. I have articles I stored as a graduate student that I have kept in boxes and moved them along within me whenever I moved. Unfortunately,the probability that I will ever find them again is close to nil. We are currently living in temporary quarters while I home is being remodeled. The remodeling will provide more space and bookshelves. These are much needed, because there were times when I could not find a book I read, but I knew it had information I needed to review. In these cases it was frequently more expedient to reorder the book from Amazon.

I was excited by the invention of the Kindle and other electronic readers. I purchased a Kindle and liked it. It was especially useful for cruises as I did not have to pack so many books. Neverthelesss, I found the display to be too small, so I used in sparingly. My recent purchase of an iPad eliminated the display size problem, but initially I did have problems regarding the logic of the interface. Several consultations with Apple Geniuses solved these problems and I am now a most satisfied user even though I use it primarily as a reader. An earlier post related by experiences using it at the APA convention (see the healthymemory blog post “Attendance at the 2014 Convention of the American Psychological Association). Frankly I find it easier doing email and writing with my laptop. The potential of the iPad is large, but it is unlikely that I shall avail myself to most of it.

From now on electronic versions of most written material will be preferred. Most books will be purchased on Amazon and downloaded to the Kindle app on my iPad. The iPad mitigates many logistical problems and provides an easy way of accessing information I am still in a learning process and my appreciation of the iPad as a device for transactional memory is growing.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Prefrontal Cortex and Violent Jihadists

March 21, 2015

We have a more highly developed prefrontal cortex than any other species. The prefrontal cortex is the seat of logic, analysis, problem solving, good judgment, planning for the future, and decision-making. Unfortunately, our prefrontal cortex is not fully mature until we are well into our twenties, so there is time, perhaps even too much time, in which to make poor decisions. Not surprisingly the prefrontal cortex is frequently called the central executive, or CEO of the brain. There are extensive two-way connections between the prefrontal cortex and virtually every other region of the brain, so it is in a unique position to schedule monitor, manage, and manipulate almost every activity we undertake. These cerebral CEOs are highly paid in metabolic currency. Clearly, understanding how they work and how they get paid can help us to use our time more effectively.

It might be surprising to learn that most of prefrontal cortex’s connections to other brain regions are not excitatory, but inhibitory. One of the greatest achievements of the human prefrontal cortex is that it provides impulse control and the ability to delay gratification. Without this impulse control, it is unlikely that civilizations would have developed. And I can’t help speculating how there might be fewer wars, crime, and substance abuse if the prefrontal cortex were more fully engaged.

As the prefrontal cortex does not reach maturity in most of us until our mid-twenties (although it continues to develop into our forties), there is ample time to ruin our lives. During this period we must decide what we want to pursue in life and to start devoting resources to achieve our goals. Skipping or providing short shrift to education, unwanted pregnancies, premature marriages, or committing criminal or immoral acts can result. This is not to suggest that we are victims of our prefrontal cortex and are not responsible for these problems. But we do need to bear in mind that although individuals might be legally mature, they are not necessarily biologically mature with respect to important brain maturation.

Reading about young Muslims leaving their families to join ISIS or other terrorists to commit atrocities, and against fellow Muslims no less, is quite puzzling. Some Muslim parents live in fear that their children might leave them to commit atrocities. How can children from good families do such things? Immature prefrontal cortices might be a contributing factor.

I am curious as to whether any research has been done on the corpses of terrorists. Might autopsies reveal pathological or immature prefrontal cortices?

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Another Example of Misdiagnosis of Dementia

March 18, 2015

A previous healthy memory blog post, “A Treatable Condition Misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s,”  discusses a case as being untreatable Alzheimer’s when the true diagnosis was normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH).  An article in the March 5, 2015 Health and Science of the Washington Post, by Roni Caryn Rabin titled “Mom developed dementia:  after ten years she got better” motivated me to write this post about this often overlooked diagnosis, and because the article points to  problems in the medical system of the United States.  Even though her mother was a retired psychiatrist, and even though her mother’s mother had suffered from the same malady, it took ten years for the correct diagnosis to be made followed by successful surgery that remedied the condition.

Her symptoms were gait problems with resultant falling.  Her gait tripped her up.  It became uneven.  She was unsteady and the slightest incline threw her off stride.  Sometimes she quickened her pace involuntarily, and she sometimes bent over and then straightened back up.

She went to doctor after doctor telling them that she wanted a diagnosis telling them that she is convinced that it is something organic and that it has an underlying organic cause. Remember that this is a physician, a retired psychiatrist, speaking to other physicians.  She went to an orthopedic surgeon who said that she had stenosis, or narrowing of the open spaces of the spine, and recommended surgery.  She underwent a complicated potentially back operation, and seemed to be walking more smoothly afterward.  But this lasted for only a few months.

Her mother’s dementia  had been caused by normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH), which is a buildup of cerebrospinal in that brain that causes difficulty walking, urinary incontinence, and cognitive loss.  Her mother floated the idea that she might ave NPH. She hoped that that would be the case because today it can often be treated by implanting a small shunt into the brain to drain off excess fluid.  Nevertheless, she had difficulty convincing her fellow physicians that her diagnosis was correct.  Eventually the correct diagnosis was made and her condition was remedied by the operation.  In total, it took ten years to correct her condition.

Now if it takes a knowledgeable physician with the correct diagnosis ten years to be successful, what are the chances for us laypeople???

What Next for Randomized Clinical Trials?

March 14, 2015

An article by Herbert I. Weisberg in the February 2015 Significance (22-27), which is a joint publication of the American Statistical Association and the Royal Statistical Society of Great Britain addresses a concern I have been increasingly having regarding the Gold Standard of research, Randomized Clinical Trials (RCTs).  Advances in the sciences and in statistical practice have raised some serious questions regarding their generality.

Actually RCTs are a fairly recent development.  For most of medical history medicine was an art practiced by “healers and  based on esoteric knowledge acquired mostly through apprenticeship.”  The situation began to changed in the 1700s, during the Age of Enlightenment.  The scientific method based on empirical evidence about disease and the effectiveness of different interventions began to be applied.  However, the article notes that with the exception of a dispute over the wisdom of inoculation to prevent smallpox, the study of medical treatment remained almost entirely qualitative.  Even the study by James Lind that eventually led to the use of citrus fruits to cure scurvy would be regarded as a pilot study by today’s standards.

However, at this time, statistical ideas had yet to arrive.  Pierre-Simon Laplace was a strong believer in the potential of statistical analysis in various fields including medicine.  Laplace’s prescription was primarily theoretical, but it did influence some contemporary medical researchers,  One of these was Pierre Louis, who formulated a “numerical method” of assessing treatment efficacy.  His approach, applied first in the 1820s utilized simple counts without formal probabilistic analysis.

Two major advances took place in the 1920s that led to the golden age of the RCT.  One was the fortuitous discovery of penicillin in1928.  This led to a proliferation of new antibiotics that transformed medical practice.  The administration of these life-saving treatments was relatively straightforward and depended little, if any, on subtle medical judgment.  The effects of these drugs were much less variable with respect to the patient’s response than most traditional therapies. The second advance was in statistics.  In 1925 Fisher’s Statistical Methods for Research Workers was published.  This provided methodological guidance for RCTs.  Gosset’s development of the t-test solved how to analyzed experiments with modest sample sizes.  As the article notes, by the 1970s, the methodology of large-scale double-blinded RCT had reached maturity and was broadly accepted as the way to demonstrate the efficacy of a pharmaceutical product, and was mandated by regulatory agencies throughout the world.

It is important that the RCT permits generalization to the population from which the sample used in the RCT was drawn.  It does not necessarily generalize to every individual in that sample, or to individuals who belong to other populations.  In most studies there are individuals who either didn’t die or recovered from the illness that the drug was intended to eliminate or mitigate.  But the RCT requires large samples to estimate statistical confidence.

The advent of epigenetics has refocused the attention on to individuals.  Even individuals with the same genetic backgrounds might differ in their response to a treatment because of the way the information was read out of the genome.  Genetic differences can determine the efficacy of different treatments.  Suddenly the world has become much more complicated.  The promise of developing specific treatments for specific individuals has tremendous potential, but is only beginning.  There is much to be learned and new techniques for research and treatment will need to be developed.  So we must wait and hope.

The important point for readers of the healthy memory blog is that when you read the results of a RCT, the results might not pertain to you individually.  This is particularly true in research areas such as mindfulness.  You might read that such and such a method was not found to be beneficial.  What was found was that the method was not found to be beneficial for the treatment group and for the population from which that group was drawn.  But there may have been differences with respect to the research protocol, or to the assiduousness with which certain participants carried out the method.  So you shouldn’t necessarily rule out trying the method yourself or some variant of the method.

More on Erroneous Eyewitness Testimony

March 11, 2015

This post is based primarily on an article by Steven J. Frenda, Rebecca M. Nichols, and Elizabeth F. Loftus titled “Current Issues and Advances in Information Research,” in Current Directions in Psychological Science (2015) 20, 20-23.  They note a recent discussion of the distorting effects witnesses have on the memory of other witnesses by Wright, Memon, Skakerberg, and and Gabbert (2009) in Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 174-178.  They propose that there three accounts of why eyewitnesses come to report incorrect information.
A witness’s report may be altered due to normative social influence.  A witness might decide that the cost of disagreeing with law enforcement—or with other witnesses—is too high, and so adjusts her report accordingly.
Through informational social influence processes, a witness comes to endorse a version of events that is different from what he remembers because he believes it to be truer or more accurate than hi own memory.
A witness’s memory can become distorted, sometimes as a result of being exposed to incorrect or misleading information.
It is this third possibility that this blog post addresses.

Perhaps the first question is “who is vulnerable?”  The short answer is that nobody is immune to the distorting effects of misinformation, but some people are more vulnerable than others.  Very young children and the elderly are more susceptible to misinformation than adolescents and adults.  People who report lapses in memory and attention are also specially vulnerable.  These facts suggest that a poverty of cognitive resources results in an increased reliance on external cues to reconstruct memories.  Misinformation effects are easier to obtain when individuals’ attentional resources are limited.  Similarly, people who perceive themselves to be forgetful and who experience memory lapses may be less able or willing to depend on their own resources as the sole source of information as they mental reconstruct an event.

Two major studies containing more than 400 participants explored cognitive ability and personality factors as predictors of susceptibility to misinformation.  In these studies participants viewed slides of two crimes and later read narratives of the crimes that contained misinformation.  Participants who had higher intelligence scores, greater perceptual abilities, greater working memory capacities, and greater performance on face recognition tasks tended to resist misinformation and produce fewer false memories.   Some personality characteristics were also shown to be associated with false memory formation, particularly in individuals with lesser cognitive ability.  Individuals low in fear of negative evaluation and harm avoidance, and those high in cooperativeness, reward dependence and self-directedness were associated with increased vulnerability to misinformation effects.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging fMRI is being used to investigate brain activity association with misinformation effects.  In one study participants were shown a series of photographs and later listed to an auditory narrative describing, which included misinformation.  Shortly thereafter, they were placed in an MRI scanner and given a test of their memory for the photographs.  fMRI data revealed similar patterns of brain activity, but the true memories (formed by visual information) showed somewhat more activation in the visual cortex, whereas the false memories (derived from the auditory narrative) showed somewhat more activity in the auditory cortex.

Obviously a critical question is how to protect against misinformation effects.  To this end a cognitive interview (CI) methodology, which consists of a set of rules and guidelines for  interviewing eyewitnesses.  For example, the recommended methodology uses free recall, contextual cues, temporal ordering of events, and recalling an event from a variety of perspectives (for example, from a perpetrator’s point of view).
The technique also recommends that investigators avoid suggestive questioning, that they develop rapport with the witness, and discourages witnesses from guessing.  Research has supported the idea that the CI reduces or eliminates the misinformation effect.

Here the misinformation effect is considered only in the context of eyewitness testimony.  Unfortunately misinformation is a large problem that has only been exacerbated with the advent of the internet.  The central problem is that it is difficult to correct misinformation.  I would contend that there is an epidemic of misinformation with large numbers of people holding notions contrary to science.  It is extremely difficult to correct their misconceptions.  To read more about misinformation simply enter “misinformation”  into the healthy memory search box.

False Memories Leading to Confessions

March 8, 2015

In Dr. Kaku’s Future of the Mind he describes research in which false memories were implanted in animals.  As you will see in this post, there is no need to such physical implantations in humans.

According to the Innocence Project (www.innocentproject.org) eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful conviction nationwide,playing a role in 72% of convictions overturned through DNA  testing.  Yet eyewitness  testimony is regarded as persuasive evidence by judges and juries.  In about 30% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions, or pled guilty.  One can make a compelling argument that our legal system falls short on delivering justice.

Also consider individuals who were wrongfully convicted of sexually abusing children, frequently their very own children.  These wrongful convictions were the result of false memories being implanted by psychotherapists of a particular theoretical persuasion.  Understand that these therapists were not intentionally implanting false memories in their patients, but their therapeutic approach caused them to ask questions and make suggestions that resulted in these false memories of childhood sexual abuse.  The psychologist Elizabeth Loftus along with others conducted detailed and extensive research showing how easily false memories could be implanted and believed.  Loftus and others needed to spend many years testifying in court to get these wrongful convictions overturned and to prevent the occurrence of additional wrongful convictions.

Research has revealed that our memories are highly malleable.  We are still learning how malleable they are.  Julia Shaw and Stephen Porter reported their research on this topic in an article titled, “Constructing Rich False Memories of Committing Crime,” in Psychological Science (2015), 1-11.  First, they conducted a screening phase using one hundred twenty-six undergraduate students at a Canadian university.  In the screening phase, the undergraduates provided consent for researchers to send an extensive memory questionnaire to their primary caregivers.  Eligibility  was based on the caregiver reporting that the participant had experienced at least one highly emotional event in the specified time frame, had not experienced  any of the target criminal events (assault, assault with a weapon, and theft), and had never had police contact.  The caregivers had to report in some detail at least one emotional event.  Caregivers were also asked  whether their child had experienced any of six negative emotional events, three of which were criminal (assault, assault with a weapon, and theft) and three of which were noncriminal (an accident, an animal attack, and losing a large amount of money).  For each recalled event , caregivers were asked to write a description of what they could remember, including the location, people present, time of year, age of the participant, and how confident they were that the event had occurred.

Of this sample, 70 students met the participation criteria and the first 60 of these eligible  students participated in the interview stage, which consisted of three interviews  at approximately at one week intervals. The interviews were on average 40 minutes long.  The same researcher, who used a scripted interview for all sessions, conducted all interviews.  In the first interview two of the events from the questionnaire, one that the participant had experienced and one that the participant had not experienced were verbal presented to the participant.  The true event was always presented first to maximize the interviewer’s credibility.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of two false-memory conditions.  Participants in the criminal condition were told that they had committed a crime resulting in police contact.  One third of them were told that they had committed assault, another third that they had committed assault with a weapon, and the remainder that they had committed theft.  Participants in the noncriminal  condition were told they they had experienced an emotional event:  one third were told that they had had a powerful emotional experience during which they injured themselves, another third that they had been attacked by a dog, and the remainder  that they had lost a large sum of money and gotten in trouble with their parents.  The events themselves were not of particular interest, and were used in the interest of increasing generalizability.

During the interviews, the interviewer provided details.  No participant immediately recalled  the false event.  When participants had difficulty recalling the false event, the interviewer encouraged them to try to remember it, and (falsely) told them that most people  can remember these kinds of memories if they try hard enough.  Participants were told that the study  was an examination of memory retrieval methods, and they were asked  to use context reinstatement and guided imagery to retrieve the memory.  They were also told to practice visualization of the false event each night at home.  The strategies that were employed throughout the interviews were based on literature regarding the factors that facilitate the generation of false confessions.  For example, incontrovertible false evidence (the questionnaire your parents/caregivers provided said…), social pressure  (“Most people are able to retrieve lost memories if they try hard enough), plus the suggested retrieval and imaging techniques).  The interview also worked at building good rapport with the interviewee.

These basic procedures were employed again in the second and third interviews held one week apart.  At the end of these interview the participants were asked some addition questions by the researchers, were informed about the  false memories and the purposes of the research.  One of the questions they were asked was whether they believed the false memory.  Their responses were further broken down by the number of details.  Of the 50 participants who reported 10 or more details, 44 believed that the false memory was true and 6 did not  believe that the false memory was true.  Of these the researchers concluded that there were 44 true false memories and that 6 of the respondents were what they termed “compliant.” That is they tried hard, but did not produce false memories.  Of the respondents who reported less than 10 details, 6 reported that they believed the event occurred but the researchers classified them as accepting, but not believing that a false memory had really been produced.

Of the participants assigned to the criminal condition 21 (70%) were classified as having false memories of being involved in the criminal event  resulting in police contact.  Of those 21, 8 provided an account involving the assaulting another person, 6 provided an account involving a theft, and 7 provided an account involve  assaulting another person with a weapon.  Although type of crime was not of interest, it did not appear to be a significant variable.

Of the participants given noncriminal false memories, 23 (76.67%) were classified as having false memories.  Of those 23, 8 provided an account involving an animal attack, 8 provided an account involving an accident resulting in injury, and 8 providing an account involving losing a large amount of money.  Again, these numbers did not differ significantly, nor did the differences between criminal and noncriminal false memories.

Clearly, interviews of suspects, and I would argue witnesses, needed to be conducted carefully or the justice system might again be led astray.  I would further argue that all pretrial testimony should be videotaped and available for review.

The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind

March 4, 2015

When I saw this title, I knew immediately that I had to read it.  Now that I have read it, I am certainly not disappointed.  This is one of the most interesting books I have read, and I have read many interesting books.  This book was written by Dr. Michio Kaku, a Professor of Theoretical Physics at the City University of New York.  Dr. Kaku has a brilliant mind and has written a brilliant book.

In the lingo of the healthy memory blog, this book deals with transactive memory, how technology and other humans can enhance our minds.  I shall be basing some future posts on chapters from this book, but there is no way I can even begin to give it justice.  So I strongly recommend you reading the entire book on your own.  The book is divided into three books.  Book I is titled “The Mind and Consciousness,”  Book II, “Mind Over Matter,”  and Book  III  “Altered Consciousness.”

Consciousness is presented from a physicist’s viewpoint.  Even though I am a psychologist, I find much to like in this physicist’s viewpoint.  There definitely will be a future post on his viewpoint of consciousness.

Chapters in Book II are titled “Telepathy,”, “Telekinesis:  Mind Controlling Matter,” “Memories and Thoughts Made to Order,” and “Einstein’s Brain and Enhancing Our Intelligence.”  Do not be put off by some of these chapter titles.  They are not dealing with the supernatural.  Rather they are dealing with technology that achieves these ends.  Everything Dr. Kaku writes is based on and bounded by physics.

Chapter titles in Book III include “In Your Dreams,” “Can the Mind Be Controlled,” “Altered States of Consciousness,” “The Artificial Mind and Silicon Consciousness,” “Reverse Engineering the Brain,”  “ The Future:  Mind Beyond Matter,”  “The Mind is Pure Energy,” and “The Alien Mind.”  I’ve long been perplexed as to how Kurzweil plans to upload his mind to silicon to achieve the Singularity.  Dr. Kaku explains how this might be done, but it does not involve silicon.  Everything proposed in these chapters is based on sound theoretical physics.  As Dr. Kaku notes, the problems involve engineering, and the engineering tasks are quite formidable indeed.  I am especially appreciative of his ideas on the alien mind.  I’ve had my fill of unbelievable anthropomorphic aliens.

An appendix on Quantum Consciousness is also included.

My only complaint regards the failure of Dr. Kaku to note that there are corpses of individuals whose brains were filled with the tell tale amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles of Alzheimer’s, yet who never exhibited any of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s when they lived.  So it appears that, at best, the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles are a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for Alzheimer’s.

Cognitive Potential Hiding in Plain Sight

March 1, 2015

This phrase is taken from the cover article of the New Scientist, 21 Feb 2015, “Meet Your Other Brain”, 30-33 by Ted Burrell.  Grey matter in the brain is grey due to myelin.  At one time it was thought that the main purpose of myelin  was to speed up reflexes to so we could react faster.  However, William Richardson who studies neural plasticity at University College, London said  that “Ultimately it allows us to have clever brains.”  A small amount of myelin is made while we are still in the womb, but after birth it takes off .  It surges as infants learn to crawl, walk, and talk.  At  around age 4, the rate of myelination slows and teenagers still have the prefrontal cortex left to myelinate.  The prefrontal cortex is crucial for planning and consideration of consequences.  Consequently, processing in the prefrontal cortex is slow and inefficient and teens remain impulsive.  By the time we reach our forties, during which there have been many opportunities to ruin our lives, the final circuitry is completed.  But from our 60s onwards the coverings start to fray and degenerate, which fits the common experience of cognitive decline as we age.  As myelin degenerates, the signals get fuzzier.

Neural plasticity is at the neurons and the synapses between them.  The number of neurotransmitter  receptors increase in a synapse the more the pathway is used, which enables the brain to adapt according to learning or experience.  Consequently, our quest to understand cognitive decline, and the potential for activities that boost brain power has focused on grey matter, the part of the brain and spinal cord packed with the neurons cell bodies and synapses.

It wasn’t until  2009 that the new neuroimaging  method called diffusion MRI was available that allows measures of human white matter in the living brain.  Heidi Johansen-Berg of the University of Oxford examined a 2004 study, which found that learning a new skill such as juggling changed the density of grey matter, which is an example  of classic synaptic plasticity.  She replicated this juggling study  and found that after six weeks brain scans showed  that myelin had increased more than that of a control group who had no training (Nature Neuroscience, 12, p. 1370).  She found the change not only in the grey matter but also in the underlying white matter pathways, which suggested that these pathways strengthen in some way as the result of experience.  These changes in white and grey matter took place over different timescales, which suggested two different processes.  Johansen-Berg thinks that the increase in white matter would have enabled faster conduction along the circuits coordinating juggling.  This effect was seen in everyone who learned to juggle, regardless of how well they learned to juggle, implying that it is the learning process itself that is responsible.

Myelin is formed by oligodendrocytes, which are octopus-shaped cells with long arms that  wrap thin layers of fat 50 to 100  times around an axon, preventing  electrical signals from slipping out and expediting the conversation between brain regions.  These cells are made throughout life by oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs), that tile the brain, ready to morph at moment;s notice.

Myelin plasticity is a second type of plasticity distinct from the well-known synaptic plasticity.  More studies are needed with human subjects, but the animal studies have important implications for learning and memory.  Well-used pathways get more myelin, speeding up  the signals and making the brain more efficient.  Gabriel Gorfas of the University of Michigan says, “it’s not only that the information is stored in the plasticity of the synapses but actually in the myelin as well.  For instance, if you are learning Mandarin, myelination  would help you remember the right character faster and more intuitively.  This gives a new dimension to the amount of information and the toes of information the nervous system can store.  The importance of these and other non-neuronal cells has led to the term our “other brain.””

Myelin information can also be lost.  The brain is a use it or lose it organ.  “If electricity  isn’t flowing, the myelin can degrade, and this can lead to psychological and social problems.  If the brain were a city, and myelin the insulation, some parts would end up in the dark.  A lack of myelin is implicated in conditions like autism, and in mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, and in spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries.”

So the bottom line is, “Keep learning, keep your mind active,”  Learning new things is recommended, like a new piano piece (assuming that you do play the piano), keep up with ordinary activities like talking a walk.  If it’s an unfamiliar route, with changing scenery, and the requirement t learn the way home, all the better.  Take a new hobby, another.  The goal is to keep the electricity flowing a little better, a little longer.