This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

29Oct/10

Rotationplasty is incredibly cool and slightly terrifying

I hadn't heard of this procedure until about fifteen minutes ago, and I can honestly say that I have spent the last fifteen minutes having my mind blown thinking about this procedure.

It comes from an informational series with the Mayo Clinic which describes various medical procedures, their effects on the individual, and what life is like after undergoing them.  This particular video covers rotationplasty, a thoroughly amazing operation that I'm still trying to wrap my mind around.

Basically, a rotationplasty is carried out by removing the middle part of somebody's limb, then taking the end piece, rotating it 180 degrees, and reattaching it to the body.  In the example, the limb is a leg, so they end up removing the knee and affixing the person's rotated foot to their thigh.  As a result, the individual can now use their foot as a knee...pretty amazing huh?

It's kind of difficult to conceptualize without the video, so I'll defer further explanation to youtube.  This has to be one of the coolest medical procedures I've heard of.

via YouTube

28Oct/10

An interactive guide to mind-altering drugs

I'm sure that everyone has seen one example or another of people tweaking out when they're on various psychoactive drugs, but what's going on at a cellular level during these episodes?

It may be tough to fathom, but the "enriched" experience that many drugs offer tends to have a very specific origin somewhere in the brain.  Whether it be in disrupting particular synaptic connections, changing the levels of circulating chemicals in your neural systems, or releasing neurotransmitters that have a wide range of effects, you can always tie a particular psychological phenomenon to neural activity.

So, what might this activity look like?  Well, here's an interesting little applet that allows you to explore the cellular effects of various mind-altering drugs.  It doesn't go into a huge amount of detail beyond the systems level, but pretty interesting nonetheless.  (note, no mice were harmed in the making of this application)

via University of Utah

27Oct/10

The phrase “ear worm” may have a very different meaning soon…

So this is a pretty short article, but I couldn't help myself from talking about it.  If you read regularly, you'll know this is because it contains two of my favorite things: lasers and brains (it's actually about brain tumors, which are certainly not one of my favorite things, but pretty amazing nonetheless).

Washington University continues to impress in the world of neurotechnology with a new method for treating inoperable brain tumors.  The need for this basically stems from the fact that, while some tumors exist near the surface of the head and are easy to remove without damaging too many important parts, others exist deep within the brain and aren't touchable without causing  massive damage and causing people to start tasting blue or something like that.

So, how do you get rid of a tumor without physically taking it out of the brain?  Well, the method devised by this team involved using the radiation from a laser to kill the cancerous cells.  This is an understandably delicate process, since it's often difficult to aim for bad cells without taking out some of the good ones, but this method attempts to deal with this problem by placing the laser as close to the tumor as possible.

How does it work?

Graphic rendition of the procedure

Basically, the doctor drills a small hole in the patient's skull (typically about the width of a pencil).  They then use MRI, a technology that allows us to look at the structure of a patient's brain, to locate exactly where the tumor is and snake a tiny laser probe through the hole and into the heart of the tumor.

Once safely nestled in its cancerous cocoon, the doctors activate the laser, which emits a blast of radiation that is just strong enough to kill its immediate surroundings, sparing the healthy tissue nearby.

This sounds incredibly dangerous, but in fact it could be a very useful technique in dealing with an otherwise medical condition.  While we know that the brain is a very delicate organ, it is also very robust, and techniques such as this one allow us to choose our path through the brain and avoid the areas that would do the most damage to the patient.

This technology isn't out in the market yet, but hopefully it'll make it through the refining and approval process soon.  Coming soon to an O.R. near you!

via PhysOrg

23Oct/10

A link between creativity and sadness?

Ever wonder why your aspirations at becoming a world-renowned poet seem to be the strongest when you're in the middle of a depressive phase in life?  While artistic genius and personal malaise have often been linked in history (one only needs to google "famous artist" to find a wide range of deranged and depressed creative masters), does this kind of effect carry on into us normal folk as well?

Here is an article by Jonah Lehr tackling this very issue.  Basically, he looks at an emerging body of scientific literature that suggests that depression not only bums us out, it also makes us more creative and sharpens some of our skills.

The studies used different methods to alter their participants' moods, employing things like gloomy music, testing on rainy days, and inducing feelings of negativity and self-doubt.  They then tested them on a number of different activities designed to assess attention, memory, and creativity.  What they found was that being in a depressed state tends to enhance certain aspects of our cognition, making us pay more attention to certain kinds of details and fixate on certain tasks more heavily.

Granted, these studies have a long ways to go before we can draw a strong causal link between being depressed and having an increased level of creativity.  For one, who know how effective their methods are at actually changing participants' moods.  However, I can't say that I'm surprised - when it comes to unleashing my own artistic potential, it seems that there's nothing like a good old-fashioned breakup.

via Wired Magazine

21Oct/10

The Unintuitive Mind

Here's a really interesting TEDx talk given by Dan Simon at the University of Illinois.  Dr. Simon studies visual attention and perception, among other things, but the topic of this talk touches on a subject that is a bit more abstract.  He discusses the types of behavior we see when people do things, say things, or perceive things that logic tells us they shouldn't.  Put simply, he is interested in understanding the ways in humans act unintuitively.

He gives a number of examples that by now are very well known in psychological literature (the gorilla ball game is one of my favorites), but I think that his talk as something very important to say about our attempts to understand humans.

In attempting to investigate the ways in which our actions don't make sense from a rational or intuitive standpoint, we can say something very important about the underlying mechanisms (be they at the neural level or the psychological level) that cause people to do the things that they do.

I can't help but think of economics when I see a lecture like this one, since it seems that our most popular modern theories in this field have assumed that humans are rational and relatively all-knowing creatures that can act in an efficient and sensible manner.  Now, I don't think it should take a well-established career and tenure to be able to understand that humans are far from the rational creatures that many economists would like, but perhaps instead we should just should them some of the examples in this talk...

via TED.com