August 29, 2007

the summer just goes by so fast . . .

Yes it does! Classes started today in fact, but I feel like it was just the beginning of June last week. Oh well, the summer was fun and I think that I did some pretty cool stuff (besides getting married).

For instance, I held two jobs over the summer. Firstly, I was a teaching assistant for a class concerning research methods in clinical psychology. Not my particular field of interest, but it was pretty nice regardless. We only had like 6 students. I mostly ran the labs where they conducted two research projects. One project was an online environmental attitudes survey, where some questions were borrowed from another survey collected in the 80's. Essentially, the students were supposed to look at how attitudes on the environment have changed in the past twenty years. For their other project, I had them rate tape recordings of psychiatric patients. The patients participated in a series of role plays as a measure of social skills. The students then rated the tapes based on a set of criteria for conversational content as well as non-verbal content. This was mostly an exercise for the students so that they had experience conducting inter-rater reliability estimates. We wanted them to know how hard it is to obtain good reliability with these types of procedures. You don't really get that kind of knowledge just from reading journal articles.

My other job was as a research consultant at The Glennan Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology at Eastern Virginia Medical School. This was a pretty cool job as well. I worked for Dr. Barbara Freund, who mostly conducts driving simulation research on patients with Alzheimer's. Well, over the summer she obtained two new simulators from Raydon Corp. My project pretty much was centered around conducting quality assurance tests on the simulators to make sure that they were fit for participants in future studies. But she also let me participate in whatever else she had going on that I may have been interested in, which was cool. I really enjoyed it there. I thought that it would be like playing video games all day, but interestingly enough it wasn't. I still have to write a post about "simulator sickness," which I've wanted to write since June . . . just haven't had the time I suppose. It'll be up here soon though. What's really cool is that she's letting me work for her during the academic year, as research on the side . . . because I'll always need the extra experience. Of course this will only happen if my schedule permits it, my thesis is my number one priority!

So that's what the majority of my summer was spent on, although I also spent a lot of time teaching my wife how to play racquetball. She's gotten really good too! We both have also spent a lot of time studying for the GRE's. We're both nearing the end of our Master's programs (hers is in Literature) and we definitely want to go on for our Doctorates. That means we have to go through the lovely process of applying to graduate school again . . . YEA! (can you feel the horror?) Once more, we are trying to get into the same school! It'll work out somehow though. I'm actually not that worried about it.

Well, that was my summer. I now have a semester off solid work to look forward to, but it's cool because I'm really looking forward to the research opportunities that I will be participating in this semester, including my thesis on social ostracism/exclusion. I'm also taking a required course on psychopathology, and will probably audit the evolutionary psychology course offered through our department. Lastly, I will be the teaching assistant for my research advisor, Dr. John Nezlek, which is very cool! He's brilliant, so the more time I spend around him, hopefully the more I'll pick up. The course is "Research Methods of Social Psychology," which is a perfect fitting for me. I'll be controlling the labs for the course, but will be sitting in on the classes as well. And the first meeting will be tomorrow!

That's all for now!

August 24, 2007

Colbert on Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer, science writer and editor of Skeptic magazine, was recently featured on The Colbert Report. It was pretty good, like all the others. Shermer did a pretty good job of explaining the need for science and skepticism, in the limited amount of time given. Favorite quote:

"If you want something to work, you use science!"
He also gives examples of how to examine evidence to disprove conspiracy theories (9/11 conspiracy theories in particular) and why you can't just go on anecdotal evidence for anything! If you want to find something out, you have to research the evidence!

the science behind out-of-body experiences

Here's a New York Times article of interest. Research published today in Science examines how normal, healthy people can have out-of-body experiences.

Usually the various sensory systems of which we observe our environment (vision, touch, balance, etc.) work together to create our sense of being. Yet when one system is thrown off or is given inaccurate information that greatly differs from the other systems the brain may try to make sense of the mis-matched information. In fact, it may force a sense of being in a different body.

In one experiment, Dr. Olaf Blanke, a neuroscientist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, asked participants to wear virtual reality goggles while an image taken of their backs was shown to them as being six feet in front of them. As this image was being projected, he simultaneously stroked their backs and their images' backs with a stick. If the two strokes occurred in sychronism, participants reported being inside the illusory body. When the strokes were not synchronous, there was no illusion. Strangely, when the image being projected was not of the participant, but instead of a mannequin dressed in the same clothes as the participant the illusion still occurred.

In a different but related experiment, Henrik Ehrsson, a neuroscientist from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, had participants sit while wearing goggles connected to two video cameras set up behind them. He then began to stroke each person's chest with a stick, while at the same time moving a second stick just under the camera lenses so that it seemed to stroke the virtual body. When both strokes were simultaneous, the illusion of being outside their bodies was reported by the participants.

This is some really cool stuff I must say. It definitely gives some interesting insight into what goes on during near-death experiences where people report a sense of being outside of their bodies. Usually in these types of experiences individuals go through serious trauma or injury. There's no telling what their brains are trying to make sense of in these situations. Though one point to make is that they usually report a feeling of floating over their bodies, whereas participants in the above experiments did not have such a strong sense of floating. Of course, that is what future research is all about . . . right?

August 23, 2007

understanding a junk food junkie . . .

Mmm . . . mmm . . . good!

There's an interesting article from Scientific American that helps explain the current understanding of compulsive eating and its relation to drug abuse.

Basically, both types of behaviors activate the same brain circuitry in similar ways. The circuitry involved are neuronal networks that once evolved for the purpose of rewarding behaviors that were essential for the survival of our species (sex, finding/eating food, etc.) We essentially get rewarded for eating food (pleasure from taste), but at the same time we are conditioned with the various cues that preceded the pleasure (what the food looked like, the smell and where we found it), so that when we encounter those same cues again we expect the same pleasure, which, in turn, should make us more likely to eat the viand again.

"if the behavior necessary to seek a pleasurable experience was triggered exclusively by the object, the conditioned response would be very ineffective indeed; think about the need to find food to survive, for example: say we are primitive creatures in the jungle and you by pure chance taste a banana. The banana tastes good, but if you were just conditioned to remember that it tasted good—and not to the smell, the shape, the color, or the location of the banana—your ability to find it again would be impaired. Once you create this conditioned memory, though, it’s just like Pavlov’s dogs; the response becomes a reflex. This conditioned response underlies both the drive in drug addiction and the drive in compulsive eating."
In neuroimaging studies scientists have found that people display an increased level of dopamine in their striatum (brain area associated with reward and motivational responses) after just seeing and smelling their favorite food. The article also explains that this is the same thing that happens when drug addicts watch videos of people taking their drug of choice! At that high-calorie foods are more reinforcing than low-fat, low-calorie foods, which makes sense because as hunter-gatherers food was not always abundant. Eating high-calorie foods would be advantageous, because that contain more energy. But most of us don't live in hunting and gathering societies anymore:
"Our genes have changed little, but in our environment, we are now surrounded by high-fat, high-sugar foods. And this abundance is undoubtedly a major factor contributing to the rise in obesity Conditioning responses are incredibly powerful with food: when I go past a vending machine and I see chocolates I like very much, I desire the chocolate even though I’m not hungry. But if those chocolates weren’t there, it would be the last thing on my mind."
Such research adds additional insight into treatments for obesity and compulsive eating. One area that I find interesting is the use of biofeedback for treating over-eating:
"Yet another exciting area NIDA is researching is the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fMRI) in biofeedback to train people to exercise specific parts of their brains, just like muscles. Sean Mackey of Stanford University, neuroscientist Christopher De Charms of Omneuron [in SanFrancisco] and their colleagues have similarly trained healthy subjects and chronic-pain sufferers to control their brain activity to actually modulate their experience of pain. So NIDA is exploring the possibility that you might use this kind of biofeedback to train people to control a region of the brain called the insula, which has been implicated in food and drug cravings. Smokers who have a lesion in the insula after a stroke, for instance, seem to lose the desire to smoke."
Pretty cool stuff. Well, anyways, check out the rest of the article!

August 20, 2007

"it's on a par with a night of heavy drinking"

If you've seen the movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, then you may remember that the main character, Joel Barish (played by Jim Carrey), hires a company to erase the memories of his ex-girlfriend (played by Kate Winslet) after an epsiode of heart-break. This ends up being a mistake for Joel, and he spends the majority of the film struggling to preserve what's left of his memories of Clemetine while unconscious.

Now of course this is all science-fiction. But what if you really could erase specific long-term memories? Say memories of a deceased loved one? Or, in Joel's case, an ex-mate? Would you do it? What about traumatic experiences? Would you be willing to erase memories of a traumatic experience?

Well, we are a long way from the memory erasing capabilities of Eternal Sunshine, but research recently published in Science suggests that long-term memories are not etched in stone as previously thought. Instead, memory might be more like a "machine" that must keep running in order to hold onto experiences. Yadin Dudai, Head of the Weizmann Institute’s Neurobiology Department, found that by inhibiting the synaptic protein, PKMzeta, long-term memories in rats could be erased.

Essentially, Dudai's team trained rats to avoid certain tastes. Once the aversion was learned, they then injected the rats with a substance in the area of the cortex associated with taste memories. This substance is a PKMzeta blocking agent. After only a single application, the rats forgot their taste aversion training.

"The technique worked as successfully a month after the memories were formed, which is analogous to years in humans, and all signs so far indicate that the affected unpleasant memories of the taste had indeed disappeared."
"In other words, long-term memory is not a one-time inscription on the nerve network, but an ongoing process which the brain must continuously fuel and maintain and these findings raise the possibility of developing a 'memory eraser'."
That's pretty cool . . . very interesting, but I can't help being left feeling uneasy. If we actually reach the point of developing a "memory eraser," would it be used for practical, commercial purposes? And what would they be? Is it even ethical to erase anyone's long-term memories for any purpose? Perhaps erasing memories of traumatic experiences that lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Of course, I'm sure that such memory erasing capabilities would not be so solicitously advertised as it was in Eternal Sunshine, and there would probably be restrictions on the procedure. Very cool research, but definitely opens up a host of ethical questions.