Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Neuroscience of poker

As a recreational poker player with a neuroscience obsession, I often find myself sitting at a poker table with insecurities over my brain betraying my clever betting strategies by revealing the scheme I am trying to hide from my opponents. Did they notice I looked to the left when I made that big bluff? Did I lean back in my chair when I was confident in my cards? Did I glance at my chips to indicate I was going to make a bet? Sometimes I’ll try doing the opposite of what my opponent might perceive as a “tell” in an effort to cause confusion. In turn, I am conscious of the fact that my opponent could be doing the same thing to me, devising double-bluffs to throw me off. Welcome to the psychological dance of poker.

To some extent, our physical reactions in high-stakes situations are uncontrollable. The brain’s limbic system is activated when our emotions get the best of us, triggering the facial muscles to show what we feel. Paul Ekman’s extensive study of microexpressions has revealed that our control over facial expressions is limited. Microexpressions, involuntary facial expression flashes that last only up to one fifth of a second, can be extremely difficult to catch, however. Ekman reported that out of 15,000 people without any formal training for spotting microexpressions, only 50 of them were able to notice them in video clips (although the ability can supposedly improve with training).

But thoughts that are not necessarily linked to emotion can also be revealed by the subconscious. A new study published in Current Biology demonstrates that our eye position can be used to predict what number we are thinking of. When people were told to pick a series number between 1 and 30, a left or downward change in eye position predicted that the next number would be lower, whereas a right or upward change predicted that the next number would be higher. As the researchers state, “the findings highlight the intricate links between supposedly abstract thought processes, the body's actions and the world around us.” In other words, our brain’s oculomotor system that controls eye movement is tightly linked to our neural representation of numbers.

So how might this apply to poker, you ask?

Well try this the next time you play: look in your opponent’s eyes when they have a decision to make. If his/her eyes move left or downward (thinking of lower or neutral values), they might be thinking of “checking” or “folding”. If they look right or upward (thinking of higher values), this could indicate that they will bet or “raise.”

Conversely, try to look in the opposite predictive direction before making your move. If your opponent has a read on you (or has read this article up until this paragraph), they might already be consciously or subconsciously using your eye position to understand you. Maybe you can mess with them by incorporating some cognitive control over your natural reactions.

I claim no responsibility if these strategies fail, but if they result in winnings, I do accept thank you’s, monetary tips, or other things that activate my brain's reward system.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Video-conferencing versus real-life interaction

For the first time, an fMRI study has examined brain activity that occurs during face-to-face interaction, identifying a new and effective method for social cognitive neuroscience.

Now this might seem like a strange idea: social cognitive neuroscience is such a popular area of research, yet no neuroimaging studies until now have investigated the most fundamental aspect of social cognition, face-to-face interaction? Unfortunately this has been the case. Functional MRI studies on social interaction are limited in that the subject has to lie in a large magnetic tomb, isolated from the rest of civilization. They may watch videos or play video games that supposedly involve interaction with other people, but how accurately these situations reflect real-life social relations is up for debate.

In the new study published in NeuroImage, Elizabeth Redcay and colleagues at MIT circumvented the previous shortcomings by having subjects lie in the magnet while showing them a live video feed of a person who they played interactive games with. The researchers reported activation in brain regions involved in social interaction, such as the right temporoparietal junction and right posterior superior temporal sulcus (not the catchiest of names, but perhaps they'll soon be re-named the “sharing” and “friend-making” areas). These regions were not found in previous “social cognition” fMRI studies.

The authors suggest that their method, which is essentially an fMRI video-conference with social games instead of talking, can be applied to study social cognition deficits in autism. This would certainly be an interesting application, and the method could be used to explore a range of other untapped questions. However, there is still an important potential shortcoming in this new method: how can we assume that a face-to-face video-conference affects our brain in the same way that a real-life face-to-face interaction does?

It is indeed possible that despite a video-conference’s attempt to mimic reality, significant differences between the two remain. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore asked related questions in a recent paper in Neuron, discussing the importance of social interactions in brain development and implications for the use of communicative technology in education. Blakemore calls for more research on technology use in education, asking “[w]hat is the critical factor in social interaction that is so evidently missing from video conferencing, and which makes it incomparable to a meeting with real people?”

Additionally, Blakemore cites studies that reported important differences between using videos and other technology versus real-life interaction. As you may have guessed, real-life education always tends to come out on top in terms of effectiveness. This should put tools such as educational videos under scrutiny.

People are so amazed by video-conferencing, obsessing over the fact that it is so similar to real life. Undeniably, video-conferences are the closest we have come to real life, and it is fascinating that in Canada, you can speak with someone in Australia as if they are “right there” in your office. But some things are missing. Tactile greetings are absent. The communicators share separate atmospheres, perhaps desynchronizing their neural rhythms. And looking into someone’s eyes on a computer screen is not quite the same as a real-life mutual stare.

The study of video-conferencing is a stride toward understanding real-life social engagement, but we need to still dig deeper, questioning our tendency to substitute the real with the virtual. Can we fast-forward the processes of thousands of years of evolution, during which our brains developed through direct social interaction, or should we take a moment to rewind?


Redcay E, Dodell-Feder D, Pearrow MJ, Mavros PL, Kleiner M, Gabrieli JD, & Saxe R (2010). Live face-to-face interaction during fMRI: a new tool for social cognitive neuroscience. NeuroImage, 50 (4), 1639-47 PMID: 20096792

Blakemore SJ (2010). The developing social brain: implications for education. Neuron, 65 (6), 744-7 PMID: 20346751

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Synesthesia of empathy for pain

Synesthesia, the confusion of the senses, has fascinated artists and writers for centuries. However, the first medical description of a synesthete, who experienced “coloured hearing,” was not until 1812.

Now 61 different types of synesthesia have been identified, and new forms continue to regularly pop up in the scientific literature. The most common type is grapheme-colour synesthesia, in which an affected individual experiences letters and numbers as shaded or tinged with colour. There are also such things as “flavour-colour,” “sound-touch,” and “vision-temperature” synesthetes.

Interestingly, many of the more recently identified synesthesias involve emotion, a characteristic that has not traditionally been thought of as a primary “sense” but can be intimately linked to the senses. An example is synesthesia for pain, a condition in which the synesthete has so much empathy for the physical pain in others that the pain is actually experienced when it is observed. This variety of synesthesia was recently reviewed in a paper by Bernadette M. Fitzgibbon and colleagues that describes possible cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying the phenomenon.

Synesthesia for pain has mainly been found in rare phantom limb patients who have had an amputation but still experience sensations in the absent limb. This quality differentiates synesthesia for pain from many other forms of developmental synesthesia in that synesthesia for pain is acquired by experience. Although most of us (hopefully all of us?) feel empathetic towards those suffering from pain, it is thought that some phantom limb patients experience ‘uber-empathy’ for pain due to rewiring and reshaping of their brains.

The neural system that Fitzgibbon’s group mainly discuss as a possible underlying mechanism is of course our great unified theory of neuroscience: the mirror neuron system. Neuroimaging studies of non-synesthetes reveal that certain areas of the brain are active when pain is felt: some areas involving emotion/affective processing, some areas involving cognition/evaluation, and other areas involving the actual sensation of pain. When non-synesthetes observe pain being inflicted on another, the only activated component of the pain matrix is the emotional one. This finding has been interpreted as evidence for a mirror system of empathy (although this is hotly debated in the literature).

So the non-synesthetes feel bad for those experiencing pain but they don’t actual feel that pain (validating the claim “you’ll never understand my pain!!”).

Fitzgibbon’s group hypothesize that pain synesthetes have a “disinihibited” mirror empathy system, such that observation of pain elicits activity in all components of the pain matrix, including the areas involving the sensation of pain. This has not yet been tested, but neuroimaging studies could provide insight to the understanding of synesthesia for pain and possible treatments for this surely gruelling condition (imagine not being able to watch Scarface without feeling as though you are being dismembered by a chainsaw).

Interestingly – although this is pure speculation - further study of non-synesthetes could potentially help us understand synesthesia for pain. We all know people who cringe or feel tingly at the sight of blood. I know that I sometimes get goosebumps when viewing gory scenes in movies. Is this a less severe form of synesthesia for pain? Can these reactions be reduced with certain experiences, such as repeated exposure? Or with brain-altering interventions such as rTMS?

The synesthete may be viewed as abnormal, but perhaps we underestimate the interrelatedness of the senses that exists in us all.


Fitzgibbon BM, Giummarra MJ, Georgiou-Karistianis N, Enticott PG, & Bradshaw JL (2010). Shared pain: from empathy to synaesthesia. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 34 (4), 500-12 PMID: 19857517

Monday, April 19, 2010

Exercise and the brain: latest findings from mice to men

I previously discussed how exercise is becoming increasingly recognized as a treatment for psychiatric disorders, thanks to recent research reporting beneficial effects of exercise on mental health and cognition. Most studies have examined effects of aerobic/cardiovascular exercise, but an interest in resistance training is growing. Let’s take a look at three of the latest studies on different types of exercise and the brain. I’ll summarize one study of mice, one of monkeys, and one of humans.

1. Mice

David Creer and colleagues reported in PNAS that mice who exercised on a running wheel were better able to discriminate between visual patterns than mice who didn’t exercise. This enhanced “spatial pattern separation” was linked to increased neurogenesis in the hippocampus of exercising rats. Neurogenesis, the birth of new neurons, has repeatedly been demonstrated in exercising mice, but the precise function of neurogenesis is unknown. So Creer’s study not only shows that exercise improves a cognitive ability that hadn’t previously been found, but the study also provides insight into a possible function of neurogenesis.

2. Monkeys

The effects of exercise on the brain of monkeys is a relatively untapped area, but such study of our primate relatives could provide better insight into what exercise does for humans. In a paper currently in press, researchers report that monkeys who ran on treadmills for 1 hour a day, 5 days a week (comparable to recommended exercise regimens for humans) for a period of 5 months had greater cortical vasculature (i.e., more blood supply) in their brains than monkeys who didn’t exercise. The exercising monkeys also learned to participate in cognitive tasks faster than their sedentary counterparts, but their actual performance on the cognitive tasks wasn’t enhanced.

3. Humans

To build on the study I mentioned in my previous post on the beneficial effect of resistance training on cognitive function in elderly woman, researchers in Brazil have reported that resistance training is also good for elderly men. A group of 65-75 year olds were put on a 24 week weightlifting exercise program, and the exercisers subsequently reported improvements in mood and anxiety relative to a control group. The improvements were linked to an increased blood level of IGF-1, a hormone that also acts on the brain and may underlie cognitive and mental health benefits of exercise.

So there you have it. Exercise demonstrates time and again that it exerts positive effects on the brain. Different exercise types seem to have different effects, but all types are beneficial in some way. More investigations on this topic are sure to come, giving insight to the treatment and prevention of neurological and psychiatric disorders.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Neuromarketers marketing themselves

While we’re on the topic of NeuroFocus and neuromarketing, let’s take a look at the neuromarketing firm’s latest promotional strategy.

Despite their purported ability to help design cleverly effective and creative advertisings, NeuroFocus has chosen to advertise itself by releasing a spoof nerdy rap music video. Full of clichés and overdone jokes it may be, but perhaps they used neuromarketing techniques to certify that this strategy is effective?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Eric Kandel joins NeuroFocus, but what does it mean for neuromarketing?

NeuroFocus, a California neuromarketing firm, has so far successfully persuaded several major corporations to adopt their services. Among Neurofocus clients are Google, Walt Disney Co., and Hyundai, companies that have been willing to try using brain wave responses measured by EEG to improve advertising effectiveness and the quality of their products. However, there is a dearth of published studies on the effectiveness of neuromarketing with EEG, and most of the evidence NeuroFocus cites to prove their legitimacy comes from indirect studies that apparently have much to say about neuromarketing.

Realizing that many people remain skeptical about neuromarketing, NeuroFocus has taken several steps toward enhancing their image of trustworthiness and legitimacy.

Most recently Eric Kandel, the highly-respected Nobel Prize winner for his work on determining the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons, has joined the NeuroFocus advisory board. Doing so, Kandel joins a number of renowned neuroscientists from all over the world who are already on the board.

The addition of Kandel will certainly help improve the academic view of neuromarketing, a field that has raised concerns over its effectiveness and ethics. The involvement of academics may help encourage further academic research on neuromarketing.

Proponents of neuromarketing have been celebrating Kandel’s involvement. However, the skeptic should question what it means to have scientists like Kandel on the NeuroFocus advisory board. Does this mean that neuromarketing must be legitimate, or is this just a marketing ploy? Will Kandel actually advocate for and contribute to neuromarketing, or is he simply getting paid to have his name attached to neuromarketing? Additionally, do neuromarketing firms actually want more academic research on their business, or do they simply want to be viewed as comfortably associated with academia? What if future studies report that neuromarketing is not all that is hyped up to be?

I admit that seeing Kandel support neuromarketing makes me emotionally inclined to see neuromarketing in a more positive light, but whether his backing will result in any meaningful effect on the legitimacy of the field remains to be seen. If having Kandel on board is simply an advertising strategy, comparable to having Tiger Woods or LeBron James represent Nike, a scan of my brain would probably reveal that it works.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The mirror neuron conundrum: a neuroblogging perspective

Neuroblogging moguls have been flexing their analytical muscles in response to the latest developments in the mirror neuron theory.

Mirror neurons, neurons that fire both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action being performed by another, have been implicated in the understanding of intentions, empathy, language, and autism (among other things). Several pop science books and articles have raved about mirror neurons and their widespread applications to our everyday lives. In the research and neuroblogging worlds, however, the functional significance of mirror neurons is persistently being brought into question.

Here is a quick summary of the most recent controversies:

March 10: The Italian neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti, who discovered mirror neurons in the brains of monkeys with his team, published a paper in Nature Reviews Neuroscience describing the functional role of mirror neurons, as understood based on findings from recent studies in monkeys and humans.

March 19-26: After the paper was released, the Talking Brains blog posted a series of critical articles in response to Rizzolatti’s paper. Talking Brains accused the paper of “self-destructing” the mirror neuron theory, and they even questioned whether it should be considered a theory at all:

"Can someone from the mirror neuron camp come forward and provide us with an example of what kind of empirical result would falsify the theory? Because if you can't falsify it, it's no longer a scientific theory, it's religion."

March 25: I criticized Louann Brizendine, author of The Male Brain, for calling the mirror neuron system the “I feel what you feel” part of the brain. (Okay, this doesn’t add much substance to my summary of events, but I decided to be an ego-maniac and include it anyway).

April 8: A study by Roy Mukamel and colleagues being published in Current Biology, supposedly identifying mirror neurons in humans by looking at single-neuron responses in epileptic patients, conveniently became available online.

April 9: BPS Research Digest blog called Mukamel’s study “what appears to be the first ever direct evidence” for mirror neurons in humans, stating that all evidence for human mirror neurons up until now came from neuroimaging studies that could not directly identify mirror neurons.

April 13: Finally, the Neurocritic has spoken. The Neurocritic argues in an elegant, witty article that Mukamel’s study does not provide direct evidence for mirror neurons in humans. Among his criticisms is the claim that mirror neurons lose their explanatory power if they are found all over the brain (they were supposedly found in the hippocampus in Mukamel’s study, whereas they were classically identified in a fronto-parietal network in monkeys).

Confusing? The mirror neuron theory is clearly not as simple as it is sometimes claimed to be, and so far skepticism has been healthy. The fate of the mirror neuron lies in the findings of future studies and the interpretations of neurobloggers alike.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Psilocybin for depression: are shrooms good for the brain?

What to do with the all-too-common treatment-resistant depression patient? Get them to exercise? Undergo electroconvulsive shock therapy? Transcranial magnetic stimulation? Deep brain stimulation?

How about getting them to do shrooms?

A popular article in yesterday’s New York Times discussed a renewed scientific interest in using psychedelic drugs to treat psychological disorders such as drug addiction, OCD, and depression. The article profiles the case of Clark Martin, a retired clinical psychologist who tried many traditional therapies for his depression linked to kidney cancer. Martin participated in a study at John Hopkins medical school where he tried psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in certain mushrooms. He claims that this single experience was more effective in treating his depression than anything else he tried.

It could be argued that this healing was due to an extraneous factor such as Martin’s expectations about psilocybin. However, psilocybin (after being converted in the body to psilocin) is known to mimic the effects of serotonin in the brain, acting as an agonist at the 5-HT2A receptor. This is the same receptor that is targeted by conventional SSRI antidepressants. Psilocybin and antidepressants thus have some overlap in their mechanisms of action.

Controlled experiments on the effects of psychedelic drugs on mental health are well underway, and interesting findings could emerge. Roland Griffiths, a behavioural biology professor at John Hopkins, has already reported effects of psilocybin that are indistinguishable from those of Ritalin:

“In one of Dr. Griffiths’s first studies, involving 36 people with no serious physical or emotional problems, he and colleagues found that psilocybin could induce what the experimental subjects described as a profound spiritual experience with lasting positive effects for most of them. None had had any previous experience with hallucinogens, and none were even sure what drug was being administered.

To make the experiment double-blind, neither the subjects nor the two experts monitoring them knew whether the subjects were receiving a placebo, psilocybin or another drug like Ritalin, nicotine, caffeine or an amphetamine. Although veterans of the ’60s psychedelic culture may have a hard time believing it, Dr. Griffiths said that even the monitors sometimes could not tell from the reactions whether the person had taken psilocybin or Ritalin.”

Substances that are labelled as dangerous drugs of abuse could soon receive more positive attention, such as that found in yesterday’s NY Times, if the current scientific interest develops and expands. New neuroscientific techniques may help us realize that those hippies in the ‘60s as well as those Eastern cultures who have been experimenting with psychedelic drugs and spirituality for thousands of years may have actually been on to something.

The bad name given to hallucinogens has been a product of both baseless preaching and legitimate concerns over adverse effects. Research on the effects of psychedelic drugs on the brain can bring about a more objective picture of their use and misuse, leading to better legal regulations and healthcare applications.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Neurocinematics: the neuroscience of film

Ever been deeply absorbed in an exciting movie with an interesting plot, only to find yourself asking after the film finishes: “what was with that awful ending?!”

Well recent advances in neuroscience may be able to help ensure that a movie’s quality is kept high throughout the whole film. Israeli neuroscientist Uri Hasson, now working at Princeton University, has pioneered the new field of neurocinematics, the neuroscience of film. In 2004, Hasson published a seminal paper in Science introducing a new method of inter-subject correlation (ISC) for analyzing brain activity obtained from functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) while people watch films and have their brains scanned. Since then, Hasson and researchers around the world have used this method to provide insight into how our brains respond to movies and television shows (see here and here for comprehensive reviews).

Studying brain activity while someone watches a film presents several challenges. Neuroscientists usually use fMRI to investigate the brain’s reaction to simple stimuli such as static images or text. However, analysis methods that are used for those types of studies cannot be employed to provide meaningful information about the brain’s response to something as complex as a movie. Using Hasson’s method of ISC, researchers can measure similarities in brain activity across viewers, thereby giving insight to how universally captivating a film is. The method has already been used to study the classic film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and the 2005 Academy Award-winning Crash, as well as the television shows Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The hope for the future is that neurocinematics will be able to help movie producers maximize the quality of their films. For example, film-makers could create many different cuts for a movie’s possible ending, and the final cut could be selected based on the information provided by measured brain responses to the different cuts.

If this kind of talk reminds you of my previous discussion of neuromarketing, it’s because neurocinematics has the potential to turn into a lucrative business. But first neurocinematics will have to face issues that are being discussed within the context of neuromarketing. ISC as a form of fMRI analysis is still in its infancy, and researchers don’t yet completely understand what it tells us about film quality. Additionally, can neurocinematics provide information about our thoughts and emotions evoked by movies that other methods can’t? And will film-makers put their faith into neurocinematics and let it decide how they should craft their artwork?

Unlike other forms of neuromarketing, though, the cost factor won’t likely hold movie-makers back. Yes, fMRI is considered to be relatively expensive for its general purposes. But the typical big-budget Hollywood film costs over $100 million to make, and almost as much is spent on marketing. Why not pump some of those marketing funds into an objective measure of whether your film is good or not?

The progress of this innovative field will be interesting to follow. A peer-reviewed scientific journal for neurocinematics, titled Projections: The Journal for Movies and the Mind, already exists and is promoting scientific interest in film. The unprecedented success of the recent film Avatar might drive researchers to investigate the effects of 3D films on the brain. We might even see neurocinematics companies soon opening up in Hollywood, promising film-makers the next Oscar winner.

Don’t expect neuro-approved movies to blow your mind in ways that older movies never could. Classic films will always remain classic, and the art of film will remain an art...

...with a little science giving it a hand.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Exercise to treat psychiatric disorders

Here in Toronto, the spring days are getting warmer. After another long and cold winter, we’re finally able to go outside without covering ourselves in obscene amounts of clothing. People are outside walking, running, biking and playing tennis. People also seem to be in better spirits.

If asked why people seem to be happier, most of those questioned would probably say the weather is responsible. But with better weather, more people are physically active, and numerous studies have reported that exercise improves mood, cognitive ability and brain function. The evidence is compelling, and psychiatry is beginning to take interest in the beneficial effects of exercise on disorders such as depression, anxiety and ADHD (see the book Spark: the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey). This is an exciting area of research that I have been carefully following ever since I co-authored a paper on exercise to treat bipolar disorder.

The reason this research is so exciting is that we all know that exercise helps stave off diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. If we accept that exercise can prevent and/or treat psychiatric disorders too, we can view exercise as an all-in-one solution to health problems of both the body and the mind.

A couple of studies on the effects of exercise on cognition and the brain have made news headlines this year. One study, conducted at the University of British Columbia, found that resistance training in elderly women resulted in significantly improved performance on tasks that involve executive cognitive function. Another study by a group in Germany found that exercise (stationary cycling) resulted in increased brain volume in the hippocampus, a structure involved in learning and memory, in patients diagnosed with schizophrenia (healthy control subjects who exercised also had increased hippocampal volume). It is interesting to note that these studies examined different forms of exercise – resistance training and aerobic training – yet both showed beneficial effects on brain health.

Now another study study, in press in Journal of Affective Disorders, has found that acute exercise (stationary cycling) increases blood levels of some cytokines in patients with major depressive disorder. Cytokines, substances that are secreted by the immune system, can function as pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory. They can also affect neurotransmission and can thus have significant effects on the brain. Some evidence suggests that pro-inflammatory cytokines are elevated in level in patients with depression.

Unfortunately this study only examined the immediate effect of exercise on cytokine levels, and it was actually found that some pro-inflammatory cytokines increased in blood levels. The results do not tell us much about the usefulness of using exercise to treat depression. However, they tell us that the long-term effects of exercise on cytokine levels should be studied to provide important insights on the mechanisms by which exercise exerts its effects on psychiatric disorders. Future studies should try to include severely depressed patients (this study only examined moderately depressed patients) and investigate the effects of different types of exercise.

Okay, enough rhetoric and time to go outside for a run... we’ll figure out the details later.