A process involved in neurodevelopmental disorders that we are only just beginning to understand is “compensation” – the way that a deficit can be partially or wholly masked by automatic mental processes and/or deliberate behavioural strategies. For instance, a person with dyslexia may achieve typical levels of reading ability after an earlier diagnosis, not because the disorder has gone away (subtle tests might show continuing problems in phonological processing, for example) but through the use of behavioural strategies, such as reverse-engineering a tricky word from the meaning of words around it. In a new review in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews Lucy Anne Livingston and Francesca Happé, at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, take us through what compensation might mean for autism.
Surveys and opinion polls are notoriously bad at predicting election results, as a chain of rather unexpected events last year demonstrated. These instruments usually ask people about their explicit attitudes and opinions. Often, however, these “external” proxies are not entirely representative of what a person is really thinking. For example, severalstudies have shown that implicit attitudes – that is, subtle preferences or biases outside the realm of our consciousness – can be more useful in predicting our future choices.
As scary as this may sound, there is also mounting evidence that our physiological responses can be even more accurate in revealing how we’re likely to vote. In a new paper in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, researchers from Kingston University and the University of Essex have taken a closer look at a voting outcome in the UK that, last year, came as a surprise to a lot of people. Their findings suggest that people’s brain responses to statements about the EU were a more accurate predictor of they way they went on to vote in the Brexit referendum than their stated intentions.
A person diagnosed with psychogenic amnesia complains of serious memory problems, sometimes even forgetting who they are, without there being any apparent physical reason for their symptoms – in other words, their condition seems to be purely psychological.
It’s a fascinating, controversial diagnosis with roots dating back to Freud’s, Breuer’s and Charcot’s ideas about hysteria and how emotional problems sometimes manifest in dramatic physical ways. Today, some experts doubt that psychogenic amnesia is a real phenomenon, reasoning that there is either an undetected physical cause or the patient is fabricating their memory symptoms.
In a new paper in Brain, a team of British neuropsychologists has reported their findings from a study of 53 patients diagnosed with psychogenic amnesia – one of the largest ever studies of its kind. Michael Kopelman at Kings College, London, and his colleagues conclude that the prognosis (that is, the scope and speed of recovery) for psychogenic amnesia is better than previously realised and that there appear to be four main categories of the condition.
Some brains struck by pathology seem to stave off its effects thanks to a “cognitive reserve”: a superior use of mental resources that may be related to the way we use our brains over a lifetime, for instance through high levels of education or, possibly, learning a second language.
Bilingual people certainly seem to use their brains differently. For example, practice at switching languages has been associated with enhanced mental control. It’s even been claimed that being bilingual can stave off dementia by up to four or five years.
If true, this would have serious implications for public policy – learning a second language would be as much a desirable health behaviour as it is an educational or cultural one. But are the brain benefits of bilingualism real? The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease has published a systematic review and meta-analysis to establish the strength of the evidence base.
Hallucinating voices isn’t always distressing. While the experience is commonly associated with schizophrenia, some people – an estimated 5 to 15 per cent of the general population – hear voices that aren’t real without finding it upsetting or debilitating (they may even welcome it) and in the absence of any of the other symptoms of psychosis, such as delusions or confusion.
Now new open-access research published in Brain has revealed a perceptual advantage for this group of people: they can detect hard-to-comprehend speech sounds more quickly and easily than people who have never hallucinated a voice.
Most brain imaging studies involving transgender people or people with gender dysphoria have focused on whether their brains look more like what’s typical for the gender they identify with, rather than the gender they were assigned at birth based on their biological sex. For example, whether trans men have “masculine” brains, and trans women have more “feminine” brains.
The results have been mixed and if anything point towards trans people having brains with distinctfeatures that are neither stereotypically male or female.
A new study in Brain Imaging and Behaviour adds to this trend, showing that trans men have unusual patterns of connectivity in brain networks involved in processing of the self, as compared with male and female controls. “The present data do not support the hypothesis that sexual differentiation of the brain of individuals with gender dysphoria is in the opposite direction as their sex assigned at birth,” the researchers said, adding that the unusual connectivity patterns they found in trans men “was detected in comparison with both male and female controls, and there were no differences between the control groups”.
Three years ago, the film Lucy came out starring Scarlett Johansson as the eponymous heroine who is implanted with drugs that allow her to use the full capacity of her brain rather than the mere 10 per cent that the rest of us supposedly use. In response I wrote an article for WIRED “All you need to know about the 10 per cent brain myth in 60 seconds“. Soon afterwards I received an angry, acerbic 1,200-word email from a reader: “I am obviously not going to insist you take your article down since that isn’t my place,” she wrote, “but you should certainly not feel proud to be spreading such misinformed information to the public”.
What particularly shocked me was not just the tone of the correspondence, but the fact this email, endorsing the 10 per cent brain myth, came from a Masters student in neuroscience at Yale. But perhaps this wasn’t such an odd occurrence. A new US survey published in Frontiers in Psychology finds that belief in brain myths remains widespread, and moreover, that extensive education in neuroscience seems to provide little protection from such beliefs.
Studying people who have brain damage or illness has been hugely important to progress in psychology. The approach is akin to reverse engineering: study how things go wrong when particular regions of the brain are compromised and it provides useful clues as to how those regions usually contribute to healthy mental function.
As a result, some neuropsychological conditions, such as Broca’s aphasia (speech deficits), prosopagnosia (a difficulty recognising faces, also known somewhat misleadingly as “face blindness”) and Alien Hand syndrome (a limb seeming to act of its own volition) have become extremely well-known – at least in psychological circles – and extensively studied. However, others are virtually unheard of, even though their importance to our understanding of the brain is significant.
Neuropsychologist Alfredo Ardila at Florida International University has just published in the journal Psychology and Neuroscience an overview of four of these little-known conditions, “so rare that they are not even mentioned in basic neuropsychology textbooks”: Central achromatopsia, Bálint’s syndrome, Pure-word deafness, and aphasia of the supplementary area. This follows a paper he published last year covering four other rare but important neuropsychological syndromes: Somatoparaphrenia, Akinetopsia, Reduplicative Paramnesia, Autotopagnosia.
“In neuropsychology … there are some unusual syndromes that are found very sporadically,” he writes. “But their rarity does not diminish their importance in the fundamental understanding about the brain organisation of cognition, as well as in clinical analysis of patients with brain pathologies.”
Here’s a brief breakdown of what Ardila has to say about these rare conditions and why they’re important.
Up and down the land parents and teenagers are engaged in tense negotiation and diplomacy in an effort to maintain domestic peace. Some households are finding more success than others. Their secret, according to a new paper in NeuroImage, is a literal meeting of minds – synchronisation of brain cell firing seems to foster emotional harmony. Moreover, when parents and their teenagers display this “neural similarity”, write Tae-Ho Lee and his colleagues, “this promotes youths’ psychological adjustment”.
These are intriguing findings – in the fact the researchers claim this is the first time that anyone has compared the brain activity of parent-child dyads with their interpersonal relations. However, sceptics will baulk at the rampant neuro-reductionism and at the paper’s repeated claims of brain-based causation on the basis of purely correlational evidence.
After chemotherapy treatment, many patients say their mind has been affected. For example they describe symptoms such as feeling confused, memory problems and difficulty concentrating – a phenomenon that has been dubbed “chemobrain” (Cancer Research UK has more information).
The causes are little understood. Are these apparent neuropsychological effects due to a direct physical effect of chemotherapy on the brain? Or could it be the stress and worry involved in chemotherapy that is responsible? Perhaps it’s both. To find out more, Mi Sook Jung at Chungnam National University in South Korea, and colleagues, conducted repeated brain scans and neuropsych tests with breast cancer patients undergoing chemo and compared them with similar cancer patients not on chemo and healthy controls. Reporting their results in Brain Imaging and Behaviour, the researchers hope a better understanding of the nature of “chemobrain” and its causes will make it possible for health professionals to offer patients better support and care.