Posts Tagged ‘Neuroimaging’

Pathological Narcissism and Politics

January 4, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President” edited by Bandy Lee, M.D., M. Div.

The subtitle to this chapter is A Lethal Mix. The author is Craig Malkin, Ph.D. He writes, Pathological narcissism begins when people become so addicted to feeling special that, just like with any drug, they’ll do anything to get their “high,” including lie, steal cheat, betray and even hurt those closest to them.”

Dr. Malkin says that at the heart of pathological narcissism, or narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is that he calls Triple E:

*Entitlement, acting as if the world and other people owe them and should bend to their will.
*Exploitation, using the people around them to make themselves feel special, no matter what the emotional or even physical cost to others (battering away at their self-esteem)
*Empathy-impairment, neglecting and ignoring the needs and feelings of others, even of those closest to them because it is their own need to feel special that matters.

Exploitation and entitlement are linked to almost every troubling behavior pathological narcissists demonstrate: aggression when their ego is threatened, infidelity, vindictiveness, extreme envy, boasting, name-dropping, denial of any problems of wrongdoing—even workplace sabotage..

Dr. Malkin notes that as people become more addicted to feeling special, they grow ever more dangerous. Here pathological narcissism often blends with psychopathy, a pattern of remorseless lies and manipulation.

Unlike NPD, psychopathy is marked not by impaired or blocked empathy but a complete absence of it. Moreover, some neuroimaging evidence suggests that psychopaths do not experience emotions the same was non-psychopaths do. The emotions centers of their brains simply fail to light up when they confess shameful events such as cheating on a spouse or punching a friend. Nor do the emotion centers of the bran respond when they see pictures of people in pain or suffering anguish.

NPD and psychopathy together form a pattern of behavior called malignant narcissism. This is not a diagnosis but a term coined by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm and elaborated on by personality disorder expert, Otto Klineberg, to describe people so driven by feeling special that they essentially see other people as pawns in their game of kill or be killed, either metaphorically or literally. Kim Jong-un, Hitler, and Vladimir Putin all fall into the category of malignant narcissist.

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.

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.

The Complexity of the Brain and Neuroimaging

January 14, 2014

This blog post is based on the book Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lillenfeld. Please bear with me as this is the second post that I’ve written based on a source viewed on my Kindle.

The notion that a specific area in the brain is solely responsible for a given mental function is intuitively appealing, and it would definitely simplify matters. Unfortunately that is rarely the case. Mental activities do not map neatly onto discrete brain regions. At one time a specific area of the brain, Broca’s area was believed to be the brain’s one and only language-production center. Subsequent research has found it to be one of the key nodes, or convergence centers, for the pathways that process language. Similarly, there is no one designated site in charge of speech comprehension as it also relies on patterns of connectivity across multiple brain regions. “Although neuroscientists regard a few cortical regions as being highly specialized for particular operations—such as the perception of faces, places, body parts, ascribing mental states to others (“theory of mind”) and processing visually presented words—most neural real estate is zoned for mixed-use development.”1 This is most fortunate as the brain can rewire itself and allows the newly discovered remarkable plasticity of the brain. So when the brain is damaged it can rewire itself to regain its lost functionality. This rewiring might partially account for those individuals whose autopsies revealed the neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques of Alzheimer’s, but who never exhibited the symptoms. People who are born blind are able to use their visual cortex to perceive touch and learn to read braille letters.

This complexity of the brain should be kept in mind both when viewing images and when reading reports that draw conclusions from neuroimages. As will be seen many reports are overstated, incorrect, or only partially correct.

1Satel, S. & Lillenfold, S.L. (2013) Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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.

Rewiring the Brain

February 29, 2012

Research1 has shown that the use of the internet can result in the rewiring of the brain. Four neuroscientists at UCLA recruited 24 people ranging in age from 55 to 76 who underwent brain imaging while they did internet tasks. Twelve participants were termed net naïve, meaning that they went online just once or twice a week. The remaining 12 participants were termed net savvy, meaning that they went online at least once a day. All participants performed two tasks while their brains were being scanned. In the traditional reading task they read text on the computer presented in the format of a book. In the internet task, they performed a Web search and read content displayed on a simulated web page.

Both groups exhibited basically the same brain activity performing the traditional reading task. They used areas of the brain connected to language, memory, and reading. During the internet task, the net naïve group exhibited the same pattern of brain activity. However, the net savvy group exhibited additional areas of brain activity. These were areas associated with decision making and complex reasoning. Moreover, the net savvy group exhibited more than twice as much brain activity as the net naïve group, 21,872 voxels to 8,642 voxels of brain scan.

Subsequent research indicated that after just five days of Web training after the initial experiment, naïve brains began to work as savvy ones. So this rewiring takes place fairly quickly.

Some might argue, that although this result might be impressive, what is its bearing on a healthy memory. I would refer you to the healthymemory blog post, “Computer Use and Cognition Across Adulthood,” which shows the correlation between computer use and a healthy memory.

1Jaffe, E. (2012). Rewired: Cognition in the Digital Age. Observer, 25,2, 16-20. A Publication of the Association for Psychological Science.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. 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.

What Neuroimaging Studies Tell Us

December 1, 2009

 Neuroimaging (See the blog “How Can the Brain Be Imaged”) has also shed light on some of the “sins” of memory (See the blog”The Seven Sins of Memory”). With respect to blocking, PET scans have been done while people were trying to retrieve both proper names and common names. Activation of several regions within the left temporal lobe was observed when people were recalling proper names. When people recalled common names, the same regions in the temporal lobe were activated, but additional activation was observed further back in the temporal lobe. According to Schacter the the left temporal lobe provides a fragile link between the characteristics of an individual person and the label by which she or he is known to others.[1]

Source misattribution and memory conjunction errors can occur due to incorrect binding at the time of recall. The hippocampus plays an important role in binding processes that, when disrupted, can contribute to memory conjunction errors. The hippocampus seems to provide the glue that holds together parts of a face or word in memory. Brain imaging studies have shown that the hippocampus becomes especially active when people learn unrelated word pairs that place heavy demands on the binding process.

PET scans have also proved useful in identifying pathological cases of blocking. NN was an amnesiac who showed no overt signs of brain damage. His family provided instances of emotionally salient events that had occurred in NN’s past. When healthy people perform a similar task recalling emotionally salient events from their past, the scans reveal increased activity in parts of the right cerebral hemisphere, especially towards the back part of the frontal lobe and front parts of the temporal lobe. NN showed no activation in these regions, Instead, he showed activation of much smaller part of the frontal and temporal regions in the opposite, left, hemisphere.[2]


[1] Schacter, D. (2001). The Seven Sins of Memory, Wilmington, MA: Houghton Mifflin p. 71.

[2] Schacter, D. (2001)  op cit. p. 85.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2009. 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.