Chapter 15. Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
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Helen Shen The ability to erase memory may jump from the realm of film fantasy (such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, shown here) to reality. In the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, unhappy lovers undergo an experimental brain treatment to erase all memories of each other from their minds. No such fix exists for real-life couples, but researchers report today in Nature Neuroscience that a targeted medical intervention helps to reduce specific negative memories in patients who are depressed1. "This is one time I would say that science is better than art," says Karim Nader, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who was not involved in the research. "It's a very clever study." The technique, called electroconvulsive (ECT) or electroshock therapy, induces seizures by passing current into the brain through electrode pads placed on the scalp. Despite its sometimes negative reputation, ECT is an effective last-resort treatment for severe depression, and is used today in combination with anaesthesia and muscle relaxants. Marijn Kroes, a neuroscientist at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, and his colleagues found that by strategically timing ECT bursts, they could target and disrupt patients' memory of a disturbing episode. A matter of time The strategy relies on a theory called memory reconsolidation, which proposes that memories are taken out of 'mental storage' each time they are accessed and 're-written' over time back onto the brain's circuits. Results from animal studies and limited evidence in humans suggest that during reconsolidation, memories are vulnerable to alteration or even erasure2–4. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group
By MICHAEL LUO and MIKE McINTIRE Last April, workers at Middlesex Hospital in Connecticut called the police to report that a psychiatric patient named Mark Russo had threatened to shoot his mother if officers tried to take the 18 rifles and shotguns he kept at her house. Mr. Russo, who was off his medication for paranoid schizophrenia, also talked about the recent elementary school massacre in Newtown and told a nurse that he “could take a chair and kill you or bash your head in between the eyes,” court records show. The police seized the firearms, as well as seven high-capacity magazines, but Mr. Russo, 55, was eventually allowed to return to the trailer in Middletown where he lives alone. In an interview there recently, he denied that he had schizophrenia but said he was taking his medication now — though only “the smallest dose,” because he is forced to. His hospitalization, he explained, stemmed from a misunderstanding: Seeking a message from God on whether to dissociate himself from his family, he had stabbed a basketball and waited for it to reinflate itself. When it did, he told relatives they would not be seeing him again, prompting them to call the police. As for his guns, Mr. Russo is scheduled to get them back in the spring, as mandated by Connecticut law. “I don’t think they ever should have been taken out of my house,” he said. “I plan to get all my guns and ammo and knives back in April.” The Russo case highlights a central, unresolved issue in the debate over balancing public safety and the Second Amendment right to bear arms: just how powerless law enforcement can be when it comes to keeping firearms out of the hands of people who are mentally ill. Connecticut’s law giving the police broad leeway to seize and hold guns for up to a year is actually relatively strict. Most states simply adhere to the federal standard, banning gun possession only after someone is involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility or designated as mentally ill or incompetent after a court proceeding or other formal legal process. Relatively few with mental health issues, even serious ones, reach this point. © 2013 The New York Times Company
By JAN HOFFMAN Just in time to protect patients from the dangers of holiday cheer, a new scholarly review from a British medical journal describes many harmful effects wrought by laughter. Among the alarms it sounds: The force of laughing can dislocate jaws, prompt asthma attacks, cause headaches, make hernias protrude. It can provoke cardiac arrhythmia, syncope or even emphysema (this last, according to a clinical lecturer in 1892). Laughter can trigger the rare but possibly grievous Pilgaard-Dahl and Boerhaave’s syndromes (see explanation below). And ponder, briefly, the mortifying impact of sustained laughter on the urinary tract (detailed in a 1982 The Lancet paper entitled “Giggle Incontinence”). At the very least, the new review could be considered an affirmation for the perpetually dour. If 2013 was the year of the worried well, the authors imply that 2014 is poised to be the year of the humorless healthy. The analysis, “Laughter and MIRTH (Methodical Investigation of Risibility, Therapeutic and Harmful),” was drawn from about 5,000 studies. It appears in BMJ, formerly known as The British Medical Journal, which for more than 30 years has traditionally featured rigorously researched but lighthearted articles in its Christmas issue. A deputy editor, Dr. Tony Delamothe, said that the MIRTH study was indeed peer-reviewed — presumably by a doctor with a carefully managed sense or humor (or humour). This year, companion studies in the issue include “Were James Bond’s drinks shaken because of alcohol induced tremor?” , “The survival time of chocolates on hospital wards: covert observational study,” and “Operating room safety: the 10 point plan to safe flinging” (among the cautions: “Before flinging, identify your target and the area beyond it” and “Never fling an instrument straight up into the air”). Copyright 2013 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 19059 - Posted: 12.21.2013
// by Megan Gannon, Live Science News Editor Bonobos have a reputation among the great apes as "hippie chimps," and new research hints that high levels of a key thyroid hormone may play a role in keeping the animals' aggression in check. Found in the lowland forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, bonobos (Pan troglodytes) are closely related to chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) but the two diverge in behavior. Bonobos seem to diffuse social tension with an impressive repertoire of sex acts rather than physical fights. Males in particular show low levels of aggression — they even maintain platonic friendships with females and stick by their mothers into adulthood. The life of male chimpanzees, meanwhile, revolves around climbing the social ladder (or at least hanging onto their current rung), and navigating cooperative and aggressive relationships with other males. [8 Humanlike Behaviors of Primates] Scientists recently found another big difference between the two Pan species: A key thyroid hormone decreases at a much later age in bonobos compared with chimps. For their study, scientists took urine samples from about 100 chimpanzees and 96 bonobos living in zoos. The researchers specifically looked at the apes' levels of triiodothyronine (T3), a hormone in the thyroid gland that is crucial for development in all vertebrates (animals with backbones). © 2013 Discovery Communications, LLC
Ed Yong As the H1N1 swine flu pandemic swept the world in 2009, China saw a spike in cases of narcolepsy — a mysterious disorder that involves sudden, uncontrollable sleepiness. Meanwhile, in Europe, around 1 in 15,000 children who were given Pandemrix — a now-defunct flu vaccine that contained fragments of the pandemic virus — also developed narcolepsy, a chronic disease. Immunologist Elizabeth Mellins and narcolepsy researcher Emmanuel Mignot at Stanford University School of Medicine in California and their collaborators have now partly solved the mystery behind these events, while also confirming a longstanding hypothesis that narcolepsy is an autoimmune disease, in which the immune system attacks healthy cells. Narcolepsy is mostly caused by the gradual loss of neurons that produce hypocretin, a hormone that keeps us awake. Many scientists had suspected that the immune system was responsible, but the Stanford team has found the first direct evidence: a special group of CD4+ T cells (a type of immune cell) that targets hypocretin and is found only in people with narcolepsy. “Up till now, the idea that narcolepsy was an autoimmune disorder was a very compelling hypothesis, but this is the first direct evidence of autoimmunity,” says Mellins. “I think these cells are a smoking gun.” The study is published today in Science Translational Medicine1. Thomas Scammell, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, says that the results are welcome after “years of modest disappointment”, marked by many failures to find antibodies made by a person's body against their own hypocretin. “It’s one of the biggest things to happen in the narcolepsy field for some time.” It is not clear why some people make these T cells and others do not, but genetics may play a part. In earlier work2, Mignot showed that 98% of people with narcolepsy have a variant of the gene HLA that is found in only 25% of the general population. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group
By Greg Miller John McCluskey killed a vacationing couple in eastern New Mexico in 2010, set their camper trailer on fire with their bodies inside, and took off with their truck. In sentencing hearings held after his conviction, McCluskey’s lawyers argued that he should be spared the death penalty because abnormalities in his brain had made him impulsive and unable to control his behavior. Last week, a jury declared it had been unable to reach the unanimous decision required to sentence him to death. It’s not known if the brain scans and other scientific evidence played a role in McCluskey escaping the death penalty. And it’s not the first time such evidence has been introduced when the death penalty was on the line. In fact, neuroscience is making increasingly regular courtroom appearances. “It’s amazing the extent to which judges, attorneys, and juries are taking this in stride,” said Owen Jones, a legal scholar at Vanderbilt University who observed a few hours of testimony in McCluskey’s case. “Just a few generations ago, this was beyond the realm of science fiction,” Jones said. But now, “you watch the jurors and they reflect no outward manifestation of what an extraordinary thing it is to look inside another person’s brain.” ‘It’s amazing the extent to which judges, attorneys, and juries are taking this in stride.’ Nita Farahany, a bioethicist at Duke University has been tracking the rise of legal cases involving neuroscience evidence in the U.S. The number of judicial opinions mentioning neuroscience evidence tripled between 2005 and 2011, from roughly 100 to more than 300. “It’s more prevalent than my numbers show,” Farahany said. That’s because most cases involving neuroscience evidence do not result in a written judicial opinion, and those that don’t are exceedingly difficult to find. © 2013 Condé Nast.
By John Chipman, CBC News Andrew Solomon is not your typical depressive, if such a thing exists. Most people struggling with clinical depression do not like to talk about it. Depression is usually suffered in silence, because of the stigma that still clings to it. Many people still see depression as a sign of weakness, or believe that if you just cheered up or had a better attitude you'd feel so much better. Solomon has heard the wrong-headed chatter most of his life. But rather than shy away, the journalist and best-selling author wrote a book about it, detailing his own struggles with depression. It’s called The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. And he has become a vocal advocate, calling for more progressive attitudes about the disease so that people suffering from it can step out of the shadows and feel comfortable getting the help they need to survive, and to thrive. So it was with some shock and dismay that Solomon learned about Ellen Richardson, a Canadian woman turned back at the U.S. border last month because she was hospitalized last year for her depression. Richardson was told she could only enter the U.S. if a doctor — not her own, but one from a shortlist of others whom she had never met — signed a document vouching for her. She would also have to pay a fee of $500. U.S. border guards are allowed to bar anyone they deem a threat to themselves, to other Americans, or their property. They have access to police records — including even uneventful encounters with officers — but medical records are supposed to be held in the strictest confidence. © CBC 2013
Bats can understand the emotional state of other bats from the intonations of their calls, a new study suggests. In the lab, researchers observed greater false vampire bats (Megaderma lyra, pictured) that had been trained to wait for food on a perch. In some tests, they played “aggression calls” over a speaker, typically made by a bat defending its place on a perch from an approaching bat. In other trials, the researchers played “appeasement calls” often made by a bat approaching one already ensconced on a perch and thus seeking to share its space. (Bats were tested individually, and the use of recorded calls ensured that the bats were responding to the content of the call and not visual cues from another bat.) In all tests, the scientists played a call once every 20 seconds until the bats began to ignore the call (by not turning toward the speaker), and then they played a slightly different version of the same call—one that was either more urgent (with shorter, more closely spaced syllables) or less urgent. The novel aggression calls always caused a bat to turn toward the speaker, but the novel appeasement calls only drew a response when they became more urgent, the researchers report online today in Frontiers of Zoology. The failure of a bat to react to weakening appeasement calls suggests that the bats can interpret the emotional content of the calls—a sign that such perception might exist more widely in mammals than previously thought. © 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Oliver Burkeman As we stumble again into the season of overindulgence – that sacred time of year when wine, carbs and sofas replace brisk walks for all but the most virtuous – a headline in the (excellent) new online science magazine Nautilus catches my eye: "What If Obesity Is Nobody's Fault?" The article describes new research on mice: a genetic alteration, it appears, can make them obese, despite eating no more than others. "Many of us unfortunately have had an attitude towards obese people [as] having a lack of willpower or self-control," one Harvard researcher is quoted as saying. "It's clearly something beyond that." No doubt. But that headline embodies an assumption that's rarely questioned. Suppose, hypothetically, obesity were solely a matter of willpower: laying off the crisps, exercising and generally bucking your ideas up. What makes us so certain that obesity would be the fault of the obese even then? This sounds like the worst kind of bleeding-heart liberalism, a condition from which I probably suffer (I blame my genes). But it's a real philosophical puzzle, with implications reaching far beyond obesity to laziness in all contexts, from politicians' obsession with "hardworking families" to the way people beat themselves up for not following through on their plans. We don't blame people for most physical limitations (if you broke your leg, it wouldn't be a moral failing to cancel your skydiving trip), nor for many other impediments: it's hardly your fault if you're born into educational or economic disadvantage. Yet almost everyone treats laziness and weakness of will as exceptions. If you can't be bothered to try, you've only yourself to blame. It's a rule some apply most harshly to themselves, mounting epic campaigns of self-chastisement for procrastinating, failing to exercise and so on. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited
Skepticism about repressed traumatic memories has increased over time, but new research shows that psychology researchers and practitioners still tend to hold different beliefs about whether such memories occur and whether they can be accurately retrieved. The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. “Whether repressed memories are accurate or not, and whether they should be pursued by therapists, or not, is probably the single most practically important topic in clinical psychology since the days of Freud and the hypnotists who came before him,” says researcher Lawrence Patihis of the University of California, Irvine. According to Patihis, the new findings suggest that there remains a “serious split in the field of psychology in beliefs about how memory works.” Controversy surrounding repressed memory – sometimes referred to as the “memory wars” – came to a head in the 1990s. While some believed that traumatic memories could be repressed for years only to be recovered later in therapy, others questioned the concept, noting that lack of scientific evidence in support of repressed memory. Spurred by impressions that both researchers and clinicians believed the debate had been resolved, Patihis and colleagues wanted to investigate whether and how beliefs about memory may have changed since the 1990s. To find out, the researchers recruited practicing clinicians and psychotherapists, research psychologists, and alternative therapists to complete an online survey. © Association for Psychological Science
by Chelsea Whyte For chameleons, war paint isn't just an accessory, it is a battle flag. The brightness of the colours these lizards display and how rapidly they change are good indicators of which animal will win in a fight. Chameleons are famous for changing colour to hide from predators by blending into their surroundings, but they also use colour for social communication. One of the most diversely coloured species is the veiled chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus), which lives in parts of Saudi Arabia and Yemen. "At their brightest, they have vertical yellow stripes, blue-green bellies, black speckles that provide contrast and make their stripes stand out, and orange around the corner of their mouths," says Russell Ligon, a behavioural ecologist at Arizona State University in Tempe. To see if individual variations in these colours and patterns influenced the outcome of a fight, Ligon and his colleague Kevin McGraw staged a round-robin tournament in which 10 male veiled chameleons were pitted against each other. Using a high-speed camera, they were able to capture the brightness and colour changes from 28 points on each animal, taking into account how the colours would look to a chameleon's eye – which sees both visible and ultraviolet light. They found that males with the brightest side stripes were more likely to instigate a fight, whereas those with brighter heads that changed colour most rapidly were more likely to win. This suggests that different colours and patterns may signal different aspects of competitive behaviour – how motivated the chameleon is versus its strength. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By JAMES GORMAN Sometimes the scientists who study animal behavior solve puzzles and other times they uncover new ones. The war between mockingbirds and cowbirds is a case in point. Cowbirds are brood parasites, meaning they lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species, thus unloading the messy and demanding business of chick-rearing. They also peck holes in the eggs of the host birds, destroying as many as they can. Mockingbirds are a favorite target of this plan, and it seems to make perfect sense for them to viciously attack cowbirds when they catch them in the nest. But when Ros Gloag, then a doctoral student at Oxford, and her colleagues in Argentina looked closely at the war between chalk-browed mockingbirds and shiny cowbirds, they found something unexpected, as they reported in the November issue of Animal Behaviour. They stationed small video cameras near the nests of 40 pairs of chalk-browed mockingbirds. Over two breeding seasons they recorded more than 200 attacks on intruding cowbirds. They were surprised to find that these attacks, which their videos show to be quite vicious, did not stop the cowbirds from laying eggs. The cowbirds would hunker down and let the much large mockingbirds deliver hammer blows to the head, but in matter of seconds they would lay an egg and flee. How could such a failed strategy persist in evolution? © 2013 The New York Times Company
by Bob Holmes Perseverance in the face of adversity is an admirable character trait – now it turns out you can conjure it up with a quick zap to a tiny spot in the brain. The discovery in two people with epilepsy was accidental but it is the first to show that simple brain stimulation can create rich, complex alterations of consciousness. Josef Parvizi, a neurologist at Stanford University in California, and his colleagues had implanted electrodes in the brains of two people with epilepsy to help identify the source of their seizures. In the course of their work, they noticed that an odd thing happened when they stimulated a region in the anterior midcingulate cortex – a part of the limbic system involved in emotion, processing, learning and memory. Both patients reported feeling a sense of foreboding, coupled with a determination to overcome whatever challenge they were about to face. During the stimulation, one patient reported feeling "worried that something bad is going to happen" but also noted that "it made me stronger". The other said he felt as if he were figuring out how to get through something. He likened it to driving your car when one of the tires bursts. You're only halfway to your destination and you have no option but to keep going forward. "You're like… am I gonna get through this?" he said (see video). He also reported a sense of urgency: "It was more of a positive thing like… push harder, push harder, push harder to try and get through this." One singular sensation In contrast, when the researchers applied a sham stimulation – going through exactly the same procedure, but with the current set to zero – neither volunteer reported feeling any specific sensations. Stimulation of other nearby regions of the brain less than 5 millimetres away also failed to produce the feelings of either foreboding or perseverance. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Philip Ball Some animals, like some people, are more aggressive than others: it is just the way they are. But research suggests that for birds at least, it is not always easy to tell which is which. Some birds are inclined to give out exaggerated signs of their aggressiveness, others to underplay it. It is rather like the menacing biker who turns out to be a pussycat, or the geek who will break a bottle over your head. But the analogy with humans goes only so far, because many birds announce their aggression about mating and territory not by appearance but through song and gesture. For example, behavioural ecologist Michael Beecher and his colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle have observed how the song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) indicates its intention to attack a dummy bird (see video above) or a loudspeaker playing bird songs by either vocalizing distinctive ‘soft songs’ or waving its wings (see video below), both of which are perceived as threatening1. Violent tendencies Both aggressive signalling and the ensuing violent behaviour vary from one bird to another, in a way that correlates with other personality traits such as boldness2. But these attributes also vary for a single individual at different times: birds can have particularly grouchy or placid days. Nonetheless, the degree of aggression implied by the precursory signals generally reflects the actual behaviour, in what evolutionary biologists call an honest signal. But it's not always honest. Earlier this year, Beecher's team showed1 that there is some variability in aggressive signalling that does not match behaviour: a bird might act stroppy but not follow through with an attack. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group
Jo Marchant When Steve Cole was a postdoc, he had an unusual hobby: matching art buyers with artists that they might like. The task made looking at art, something he had always loved, even more enjoyable. “There was an extra layer of purpose. I loved the ability to help artists I thought were great to find an appreciative audience,” he says. At the time, it was nothing more than a quirky sideline. But his latest findings have caused Cole — now a professor at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at the University of California, Los Angeles — to wonder whether the exhilaration and sense of purpose that he felt during that period might have done more than help him to find homes for unloved pieces of art. It might have benefited his immune system too. At one time, most self-respecting molecular biologists would have scoffed at the idea. Today, evidence from many studies suggests that mental states such as stress can influence health. Still, it has proved difficult to explain how this happens at the molecular level — how subjective moods connect with the vastly complex physiology of the nervous and immune systems. The field that searches for these explanations, known as psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), is often criticized as lacking rigour. Cole's stated aim is to fix that, and his tool of choice is genome-wide transcriptional analysis: looking at broad patterns of gene expression in cells. “My job is to be a hard-core tracker,” he says. “How do these mental states get out into the rest of the body?” With his colleagues, Cole has published a string of studies suggesting that negative mental states such as stress and loneliness guide immune responses by driving broad programs of gene expression, shaping our ability to fight disease. If he is right, the way people see the world could affect everything from their risk of chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease to the progression of conditions such as HIV and cancer. Now Cole has switched tack, moving from negative moods into the even more murky territory of happiness. It is a risky strategy; his work has already been criticized as wishful thinking and moralizing. But the pay-off is nothing less than finding a healthier way to live. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group
In the 1970s pop hit “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” famed rocker Meat Loaf wails to his tired old lover: “[I]f I gotta spend another minute with you I don't think that I can really survive.” Turns out that interactions with the opposite sex really do control life span, at least if you’re an insect or a worm. Sexually frustrated fruit flies perish prematurely, a study has just found. And another experiment reveals that in nematodes—nearly microscopic roundworms—males kill members of the opposite sex by spurring what resembles premature aging. An animal’s environment shapes its longevity, sometimes in surprising ways. For example, placing lab animals on a meager diet that replicates food scarcity in the wild extends survival in many species. And, oddly enough, dulling nematodes’ and flies’ sense of smell or taste stretches their life span. An animal’s environment also includes the other members of its species that it interacts with, such as potential mates and rivals. Researchers have identified some impacts of these interactions on life span. For example, because a male fruit fly’s seminal fluid contains toxins, mating can be fatal for females. Now, Scott Pletcher, a geneticist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and colleagues have shown that sexually unsatisfied fruit flies give up the ghost faster that usual. The researchers played a dirty trick on some male fruit flies, housing them with other males that had been genetically altered to exude female pheromones, or scent molecules. Normal males woo these she-males but can’t mate with them. Pletcher and colleagues report online today in Science that the sexually thwarted males pined away. Their stored fat dwindled, their ability to endure stress declined, and their life span shrank by more than 10%. The researchers also measured a reduction in female flies’ longevity if they hobnobbed with macho females that released male pheromones. © 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Regina Nuzzo The gut may know better than the head whether a marriage will be smooth sailing or will hit the rocks after the honeymoon fades, according to research published today in Science1. Researchers have long known that new love can be blind, and that those in the midst of it can harbour positive illusions about their sweetheart and their future. Studies show that new couples rate their partner particularly generously, forgetting his or her bad qualities, and generally view their relationship as more likely to succeed than average2. But newlyweds are also under a lot of conscious pressure to be happy — or, at least, to think they are. Now a four-year study of 135 young couples has found that split-second, 'visceral' reactions about their partner are important, too. The results show that these automatic attitudes, which aren’t nearly as rosy as the more deliberate ones, can predict eventual changes in people’s marital happiness, perhaps even more so than the details that people consciously admit. The researchers, led by psychologist James McNulty of Florida State University in Tallahassee, tapped into these implicit attitudes by seeing how fast newlyweds could correctly classify positively and negatively themed words after being primed by a photo of their spouse for a fraction of a second. If seeing a blink-of-the-eye flash of a partner’s face conjures up immediate, positive gut-level associations, for example, the participant will be quicker to report that 'awesome' is a positive word and slower to report that 'awful' is a negative one. Researchers used the difference between these two reaction times as a measurement of a participant’s automatic reaction. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group
By MARY LOU JEPSEN IN my early 30s, for a few months, I altered my body chemistry and hormones so that I was closer to a man in his early 20s. I was blown away by how dramatically my thoughts changed. I was angry almost all the time, thought about sex constantly, and assumed I was the smartest person in the entire world. Over the years I had met guys rather like this. I was not experimenting with hormone levels out of idle curiosity or in some kind of quirky science experiment. I was on hormone treatments because I’d had a tumor removed along with part of my pituitary gland, which makes key hormones the body needs to function. This long journey may have started as early as 1978, when I was 13. I spent a summer in intensive care with an unknown disease. After that summer, I never thought I would live a long life. So I wanted to live, to do interesting, fascinating work in the limited time I thought I had left. I took on the math-intensive art form of holography, and in my early 20s traveled the world, living on university fellowships to pursue this esoteric craft. I didn’t date much, really — perhaps because I didn’t have many hormones, though I didn’t know that at the time. I worked as an artist, played in a band, met Andy Warhol, Christo, Lou Reed and David Byrne. I had fun. But the gravity of my illness grew in the 1990s. The growth that shut down my pituitary gland’s ability to produce hormones did so insidiously over many years. By my early 20s it was, I suspect in retrospect, causing misdiagnosis of symptoms that were most likely caused by lack of hormones like cortisol. No diagnosis was found, despite the efforts of many doctors. I was a doctoral student in electrical engineering at an Ivy League school, but was growing progressively worse. I routinely slept about 20 hours a day, lived with a constant blistering headache and frequent vomiting, and was periodically wheelchair-bound. Large sections of my skin cycled through a rainbow of colors and sores, half of my face wouldn’t move as if Novocain had been applied. I drooled. Worse: I felt stupid. I couldn’t subtract anymore. I couldn’t make a to-do list, let alone accomplish items on one. I recognized that I wasn’t capable of continuing in graduate school. Utterly defeated, I filled out the paperwork to drop out. © 2013 The New York Times Company
One afternoon in October 2005, neuroscientist James Fallon was looking at brain scans of serial killers. As part of a research project at UC Irvine, he was sifting through thousands of PET scans to find anatomical patterns in the brain that correlated with psychopathic tendencies in the real world. “I was looking at many scans, scans of murderers mixed in with schizophrenics, depressives and other, normal brains,” he says. “Out of serendipity, I was also doing a study on Alzheimer’s and as part of that, had brain scans from me and everyone in my family right on my desk.” “I got to the bottom of the stack, and saw this scan that was obviously pathological,” he says, noting that it showed low activity in certain areas of the frontal and temporal lobes linked to empathy, morality and self-control. Knowing that it belonged to a member of his family, Fallon checked his lab’s PET machine for an error (it was working perfectly fine) and then decided he simply had to break the blinding that prevented him from knowing whose brain was pictured. When he looked up the code, he was greeted by an unsettling revelation: the psychopathic brain pictured in the scan was his own. Many of us would hide this discovery and never tell a soul, out of fear or embarrassment of being labeled a psychopath. Perhaps because boldness and disinhibition are noted psychopathic tendencies, Fallon has gone all in towards the opposite direction, telling the world about his finding in a TED Talk, an NPR interview and now a new book published last month, The Psychopath Inside. In it, Fallon seeks to reconcile how he—a happily married family man—could demonstrate the same anatomical patterns that marked the minds of serial killers. “I’ve never killed anybody, or raped anyone,” he says. “So the first thing I thought was that maybe my hypothesis was wrong, and that these brain areas are not reflective of psychopathy or murderous behavior.”
Robert N. McLay, author of At War with PTSD: Battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with Virtual Reality, responds: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can appear after someone has survived a horrific experience, such as war or sexual assault. A person with PTSD often experiences ongoing nightmares, edginess and extreme emotional changes and may view anything that evokes the traumatic situation as a threat. Although medications and talk therapy can help calm the symptoms of PTSD, the most effective therapies often require confronting the trauma, as with virtual-reality-based treatments. These computer programs, similar to a video game, allow people to feel as if they are in the traumatic scenario. Just as a pilot in a flight simulator might use virtual reality to learn how to safely land a plane without the risk of crashing, a patient with PTSD can learn how to confront painful reminders of trauma without facing any real danger. Virtual-reality programs have been built to simulate driving, the World Trade Center attacks, and combat scenarios in Vietnam and Iraq. The level of the technology varies considerably, from a simple headset that displays rather cartoonish images to Hollywood-quality special effects. A therapist typically observes what patients are seeing while they navigate the virtual experience. They can coach a patient to take on increasingly difficult challenges while making sure that the person does not become overwhelmed. To do so, some therapists may connect the subject to physiological monitoring devices; others may use virtual reality along with talk therapy. In the latter scenario, the patient recites the story of the trauma and reflects on it while passing through the simulation. The idea is to desensitize patients to their trauma and train them not to panic, all in a controlled environment. © 2013 Scientific American