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Yes! After a relocation and a long, long time, Neurocontrarian is back in business and live from London.

Welcome to the 27th edition of encephalon! Let’s start some cephalization…

  • Jon Bardin has posted a second part to his initial neuroesthetics theorizing. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.
  • Michael F. Shaughnessy interviews Ben Hansen on ‘The Drugging of America’.
  • Ouroboros looks at calcium channels in Parkinson’s Disease.
  • For all you neuroimagers, a quick blurb and referral to a paper about paramagnetic effects of supplemental oxygen on FLAIR images from the ‘Cool MRI stuff blog’.
  • Kudos to the guys at Mind Hacks for sending in a post on The Cramps. Also from Mind Hacks, a post about temporal lobe epilepsy and the herpes virus.
  • The Mouse Trap has been thinking about altruism lately.
  • And so has Pure Pendantry. Jake and Kara tag-team a game theory experiment which looks at the effects of testosterone on altruistic punishment. Jake goes solo on generalized reciprocity in rats.
  • A skin patch for Alzheimer’s Disease? Shelley at Retrospectacle takes a gander.
  • I love this title so much I will add nothing more other than saying it comes from Sharp Brains. Check out ‘Pink dolphin sheds light on human evolution‘.
  • Finally, The Neurocritic looks at neuropeptide Y and the future of cosmetic surgery. And something else, I can’t quite remember. Ummm… yeah, two posts on memory and forgetting.

The next encephalon is being held at Bohemian Scientist on July 30th. As usual, you can always send your posts to encephalon dot host at gmail dot com.


Double congrats go to Mo the Neurophilosopher. Not only has the Encephalon neuroscience blogging carnival seen it’s first year anniversary, Encephalon masterbrain Mo has been welcomed aboard the network! His scienceblog can be found here.

It’s been nearly 3 months since I last wrote anything here and I should probably give a few updates. I was recently in Chicago for every brain imager’s annual favorite, the Organization for Human Brain Mapping conference. All in all, I really enjoyed the conference and the city. A few highlights:

– Marcus Gray from University College London had an interesting poster entitled ‘A cortical potential for cardiac function’ (now in PNAS). From the abstract:

Emotional trauma and psychological stress can precipitate cardiac arrhythmia and sudden death through arrhythmogenic effects of efferent sympathetic drive. Patients with preexisting heart disease are particularly at risk. Moreover, generation of proarrhythmic activity patterns within cerebral autonomic centers may be amplified by afferent feedback from a dysfunctional myocardium. An electrocortical potential reflecting afferent cardiac information has been described, reflecting individual differences in interoceptive sensitivity (awareness of one’s own heartbeats). To inform our understanding of mechanisms underlying arrhythmogenesis, we extended this approach, identifying electrocortical potentials corresponding to the cortical expression of afferent information about the integrity of myocardial function during stress. We measured changes in cardiac response simultaneously with electroencephalography in patients with established ventricular dysfunction.

– Gray’s work is somewhat representative of a general emphasis on biomarkers and predictive imaging at this year’s conference.

– This year, diffusion tensor imaging, (DTI), dynamic causal modelling (DCM), multi-modal imaging, as well as lie-detection were in vogue. I remember resting-state fMRI being the cat’s meow at the 2005 conference in Toronto. Oh the times, they are a changin’…

– I think everyone’s favorite memory from the conference program was that of a video involving monkeys and robots. Enough said.

– On other studies, Dr. Nicholas Schiff had a very interesting talk on limited states of consciousness in the clinic. You may remember Dr. Schiff’s name splashed in the headlines last summer on a very interesting case of a man who ‘woke up’ after being in a minimally conscious state. Yes, DTI pops up here too. Dr. Schiff recently talked at a workshop on neuroethics and limited states of consciousness as part of ongoing work at Stanford’s Neuroethics unit.

There are many more highlights but I should leave off now. What I will leave off with is a note that the 27th edition of Encephalon will be hosted right here in two weeks time. That’s Monday, July 16th. If you’d like to contribute, don’t be shy, send in any post you may have that’s neuro-related!

Send an email to: encephalon[dot]host[at]gmail[dot]com.

Things that I would be particularly interested in reading relate to blogging and funding. If you have an opinion as to how science blogging could be a tool (or not) for raising awareness about the need for funding, or have some interesting statistics, please send it in! The debate over stem cell research is certainly important, but I’d be interested in something that looks at the issue more broadly (many of you out there can sympathize with the penny pinching scientists are forced to endure, or end up finding financial pressures destructive). Another issue that caught my attention at the OHBM town hall meeting involved a debate about whether or not the conference should consider holding a future meeting in Cuba. Posts related to conferences and political pressures would also be well received. i.e. Should scientists be concerned about conferences being held in countries with conflicting political ideals? Could scientific conferences be held in more developing countries to bring attention to overlooked research programs?

And now for some brainial stimulation of the broab:

they’re short and sweet, around 5 minutes a piece, and posted about once a month. the focus is more on the operational ins and outs of the institute, but those of us in the field should find them quite interesting and timely. the pair of podcasts on CIHR funding is particularly important.

link to the mni podcasts from the montreal neurological institute.

debate is on my mind.

1. I found an interesting journal over the weekend titled Debates in Neuroscience. It appears to be a very new journal, the article I’m halfway through (a critical look at adult neurogenesis) was accepted in Februray of this year.

The vision that led to the establishment of this journal is to provide a forum for the neuroscience community that is devoted explicitly to controversies and conflicting ideas. We are very grateful to Dr. Norman M. Weinberger who first presented the idea for this journal to us. The give and take of debate and controversy are critical to enabling conceptual advances within any field of science, but these normally take place at scientific meetings, informal discussions, or in private correspondence. Debates in Neuroscience makes the exposition of emerging debates and controversies its centerpiece.

Since the purpose of most neuroscience journals is publishing new research reports and/or review papers, and compounded by the unusual breadth of neuroscience, there is an unmet need on the part of researchers, instructors, trainees, and students to access relevant alternate viewpoints on topics of interest, especially outside their own areas of specialization. Each issue of Debates in Neuroscience will focus on a small number of controversial topics. Each topic will be addressed by two or more papers written by nominated authors. The papers will provide an in-depth exposition of an alternative theoretical or conceptual perspective. Authors will subsequently have an opportunity to respond to the rival viewpoints.

2. There was a debate on whether we are better off without religion at Westminster this past week.

Speaking for the motion, “We’d be better off without religion”, at a debate held in Westminster on March 27; Professor Richard Dawkins, Professor A.C. Grayling and Christopher Hitchens. Speaking against: Rabbi Julia Neuberger, Professor Roger Scruton and Nigel Spivey. The debate was chaired by Joan Bakewell

You can listen to a podcast of the debate by pointing your browser here.

3. I discovered I had been linked to on A Don’s Life blog for a history carnival. While I did not submit my blurb on Andrew Scull’s review of History of Madness to the carnival, I must say I was flattered to have a Professor at Cambridge read and link to the post. Nonetheless, Professor Beard’s characterization of me prematurely dancing on Foucault’s grave was a little exaggerated. I will certainly read the newly translated edition in one hand (my copy of Madness and Civilization in the other) and decide then whether or not to put on my dancing shoes. I’d rather chalk up the tone I took in my post to the excitement of taking the shoes out of the closet.

Mansfield (L) and Lauterbur (R).

Supposedly his death wasn’t much of a surprise given his poor health. Still though, a scientific heavy-weight has left the building.

From the University of Pittsburgh:

Nobel Laureate and Pitt Alumnus Paul C. Lauterbur Dies at 77

Codeveloper of MRI technology earned doctorate of chemistry degree at Pitt in 1962

PPITTSBURGH-University of Pittsburgh alumnus Paul C. Lauterbur, who shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his part in developing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), died today. He was 77.

“Along with the entire University community, I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Paul Lauterbur,” said Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg.

“Dr. Lauterbur was not only a distinguished Nobel Laureate but a valued alumnus and friend to Pitt. His pioneering work in magnetic resonance imaging was a gift to the world and has led to its development as one of the most important diagnostic medical tools of our time. Our thoughts are with his family at this time of loss. We extend our condolences to them and hope that they will take comfort in the knowledge he has left this world a better place.”

Most recently a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Lauterbur earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at Pitt in 1962. Pitt’s chemistry department, in the School of Arts and Sciences, named Lauterbur among the inaugural group of distinguished alumni in 2000 at the department’s 125th anniversary celebration.

Lauterbur won the Nobel Prize with Sir Peter Mansfield of the University of Nottingham in England for research that led to the development of MRI, which uses a magnet to generate images of the inside of an object. MRI is largely used in medicine and lauded for its ability to generate clear pictures of soft-tissue organs such as the brain without surgery or radiation.

Lauterbur delivered the keynote speech at Pitt’s 2004 commencement ceremony where Chancellor Nordenberg conferred upon him the Honorary Doctor of Science degree.

In his commencement address, Lauterbur explained how his initial ideas of finding a noninvasive method for observing people’s internal organs occurred to him at a New Kensington diner. In his speech, Lauterbur added that techniques he learned in a graduate course at Pitt convinced him that the idea was possible.

For a full text of Lauterbur’s 2004 commencement address at Pitt, visit the Pitt Chronicle Web site at


Those writing about logic emphasize with good reason the creative power of concentration, although they tend to ignore a variety that might appropriately be called cerebral polarization or sustained concentration—that is, steady orientation of all our faculties toward a single object of study for a period of months or even years. The thinking of countless brilliant minds ends up sterile for lack of this ability, which the French call esprit de suite. I could cite dozens of Spaniards with minds finely suited to scientific investigation who retreat discouraged from a problem without seriously measuring their strength, perhaps just at the moment when nature was about to reward their eagerness with the anxiously awaited revelation. Our classrooms and laboratories are full of these capricious and restless souls who love research and suffer through mishaps with the retort or microscope day after day. Their feverish activity yields an avalanche of lectures, articles, and books—upon which they have lavished a great deal of scholarship and talent. They constantly exhort the garrulous throng of dreamers and theorizers with the indispensable need for observing nature directly. Then, after long years of publicity and experimental work, those closest to them (their satellites at the prestigious yet mysterious meetings where the great preside) are asked about the discoveries of the master. The allies are forced to confess shamefacedly that the great burden of talent, combined with the virtual impossibility of summarizing in a nutshell the extraordinary magnitude and range of the work undertaken, make it impossible to state what partial or positive progress had been made. These are the inevitable fruits of negligence or excessive lack of focus, not to mention childish, encyclopedic ostentation. This approach is inconceivable today, when even the most renowned scholars specialize and concentrate in order to produce. But enough of this; we shall deal later with bad habits of the will.
To bring scientific investigation to a happy end once appropriate methods have been determined, we must hold firmly in mind the goal of the project. The object here is to focus the train of thought on more and more complex and accurate associations between images based on observation and ideas slumbering in the unconscious—ideas that only vigorous concentration of mental energy can raise to the conscious level. One must achieve total absorption; expectation and focused attention are not enough. We must take advantage of all lucid moments, whether they occur during the meditation following prolonged rest; during the super-intense mental work nerve cells achieve when fired by concentration; or during scientific discussion, whose impact often generates unanticipated intuition like sparks from steel. Most people who lack self-confidence are unaware of the marvelous power of prolonged concentration. This type of cerebral polarization (which involves a special ordering of perceptions) refines judgment, enriches analytical powers, spurs constructive imagination, and—by focusing all light of reason on the darkness of a problem—allows unforseen and subtle relationships to be discovered. If a photographic plate under the center of a lens focused on the heavens is exposed for hours, it comes to reveal stars so far away that even the most powerful telescopes fail to reveal them to the naked eye. In a similar way, time and concentration allow the intellect to perceive a ray of light in the darkness of the most complex problem.

The comparison just made is not, however, entirely accurate. Photography in astronomy is limited to recording faint though preexisting stars, whereas intellectual work is an act of creation. It is as if the mental image that is studied over a period of time were to sprout appendages like an ameba— outgrowths that extend in all directions while avoiding one obstacle after another—before interdigitating with related ideas.

The forging of new truth almost always requires severe abstention and renunciation. During the so-called intellectual incubation period, the investigator should ignore everything unrelated to the problem of interest, like a somnambulist attending only to the voice of the hypnotist. In the lecture room, on walks, in the theater, in conversation, and even in reading for pleasure, seek opportunities for insight, comparisons, and hypotheses that add at least some clarity to the problem one is obsessed with. Nothing is useless during this process of adjustment. The first glaring errors, as well as the wrong turns ventured on by the imagination, are necessary because in the end they lead us down the correct path. They are part of the final success, just as the initial formless sketches of the artist are a part of the finished portrait.

When one reflects on the ability that humans display for modifying and refining mental activity related to a problem under serious examination, it is difficult to avoid concluding that the brain is plastic and goes through a process of anatomical and functional differentiation, adapting itself progressively to the problem. The adequate and specific organization acquired by nerve cells eventually produces what I would refer to as professional or adaptational talent. As a motivator of the will itself, this brain organization provides the energy to adapt understanding to the nature of the problem under consideration. In a certain sense, it would not be paradoxical to say that the person who initiates the solution to a problem is different from the one who solves it. This is an obvious and simple explanation for the astonishment proclaimed by all investigators on discovering the simple solution so laboriously sought. “Why didn’t I think of this at the outset!” we exclaim. “There was so much confusion traveling down roads that led nowhere!”

If a solution fails to appear after all of this, and yet we feel success is just around the corner, try resting for a while. Several weeks of relaxation and quiet in the countryside brings calmness and clarity to the mind. Like the early morning frost, this intellectual refreshment withers the parasitic and nasty vegetation that smothers the good seed. Bursting forth at last is the flower of truth, whose calyx usually opens after a long and profound sleep at dawn—in those placid hours of the morning that Goethe and so many others consider especially favorable for discovery.

Travel has the same virtue of renewing thought and dissipating tiring preoccupations by furnishing new views of the world and transmitting our store of ideas to others. How often the powerful vibration of the locomotive and the spiritual solitude of the railway car (the “just rewards of humanity,” as Descartes might say) suggest ideas that are ultimately confirmed in the laboratory!

Now that scientific research has become a regular profession on the payroll of the state, the observer can no longer afford to concentrate for extended periods of time on one subject, and must work even harder. Gone are the wonderful days of yore when those curious about nature were able to remain withdrawn in the silence of the study, confident that rivals would not disrupt their tranquil meditations. Research is now frantic. When a new technique is outlined, many scholars immediately take advantage of it and apply it almost simultaneously to the same problems—diminishing the glory of the originator, who probably lacks the facilities and time necessary to gather all the fruits of his labors, and of his lucky star.

As a result, the coincidences and battles of priority are inevitable. It is clear that once an idea becomes public it joins the intellectual atmosphere that nourishes all of our minds. Because of the functional synchronization that governs minds prepared and oriented toward a particular subject, the new idea is assimilated simultaneously in Paris and Berlin, in London and Vienna—in virtually the same way, with similar developments and applications. The discovery grows and develops spontaneously and automatically like an organism, as though scholars are reduced to mere cultivators of the seed planted by a genius. The magnificent flowering of new information is observed by all, and naturally everyone wishes to gather for themselves the splendid blossoms. This explains the eagerness to publish most laboratory studies, even when imperfect and incomplete. The desire to arrive first results at times in shallowness, although it is also true that feverish anxiety to reach the goal first wins the prize for priority.

Be that as it may, it is unwise to become disenchanted if someone arrives ahead of us. Continue work undaunted; in time our turn will come. That eminent woman, Madam Curie, provides an eloquent example of untiring perseverance. After discovering the radioactivity of thorium, she was unpleasantly surprised to learn that the same observation had been announced a short time earlier by Schmidt in the Wiedermann Annalen. Far from disheartened, however, she continued her research uninterrupted. She analyzed new substances with the electroscope, including uranium oxide (pitchblende) from the mines of Johann Georgenstadt, and its radioactivity proved four times stronger than that of uranium itself. Suspecting that this very active material contained a new element, she undertook (with the assistance of M. Curie) a series of ingenious, patient, and heroic experiments that were rewarded with the discovery of a new element, the remarkable radium. Its properties inspired a great deal of further work that has revolutionized chemistry and physics.

In Spain, where laziness is a religion rather than a vice, there is little appreciation for how the monumental work of German chemists, naturalists, and physicians is accomplished—especially when it would appear that the time required to execute the plan and assemble a bibliography might involve decades! Yet these books have been written in a year or two, quietly and without feverish haste. The secret lies in the method of work; in taking advantage of as much time as possible for the activity; in not retiring for the day until at least two or three hours are dedicated to the task; in wisely constructing a dike in front of the intellectual dispersion and waste of time required by social activity; and finally, in avoiding as much as possible the malicious gossip of the café and other entertainment—which squanders our nervous energy (sometimes even causing disgust) and draws us away from our main task with childish conceits and futile pursuits.
If our professions do not allow us to devote more than two hours a day to a subject, do not abandon the work on the pretext that we need four or six. As Payot wisely noted, “A little each day is enough, as long as a little is produced each day.”
The harm in certain things that are too distracting lies not so much in the time they steal from us as in the enervation they bring to the creative tension of the mind, and in the loss they cause to that quality of tone that nerve cells acquire when adapted to a particular subject.

Of course we don’t recommend the elimination of all distractions. However, those of the investigator should always be light and promote the association of new ideas. A stroll outside, contemplating works of art and photography, enjoying scenes such as monuments in different lands, the enchantment of music—and more than anything else the companionship of a person who understands us and carefully avoids all serious and reflective conversation—are the best ways for the laboratory worker to relax. Along these lines, it is wise to follow the advice of Buffon, who justified his abandon in conversation (which displeased many of those who admired the nobility, along with his elegant writing style) by noting: “These are my moments of rest.”

In summary, all great work is the fruit of patience and perseverance, combined with tenacious concentration on a subject over a period of months or even years. Many illustrious scholars have confirmed this when questioned about the secret of their creations. Newton stated that he arrived at the sovereign law of universal attraction only by constant thinking about the same problem. According to one of his sons, Darwin achieved such a high degree of concentration on the biological facts related to the principle of evolution that for many years he systematically deprived himself of all reading and contemplation unrelated to the goal of his thoughts. Buffon said unreservedly, “Genius is simply patience carried to the extreme.” To those who asked how he achieved fame he replied: “By spending forty years of my life bent over my writing desk.” As a final example, it is widely known that Mayer, the genius who discovered the principle of energy conservation and transformation, dedicated his entire life to this concept.
Thus, it is clear beyond doubt that great scientific undertakings require intellectual vigor, as well as severe discipline of the will and continuous subordination of all one’s mental powers to an object of study. Harm is caused unconsciously by the biographers of illustrious scholars when they attribute great scientific conquests to genius rather than to hard work and patience. What more could the weak will of the student or professor ask than to rationalize its laziness with the modest, and thus even more lamentable, admission of intellectual mediocrity! Not even biographers with the good sense of G.L. Figuier are immune from the regrettable trend of extolling beyond reason the mental gifts of famous investigators. Careful thought should make them realize how discouraging this can be to their readers. On the other hand, many autobiographies wherein the sage presents himself full-length to the reader provide an excellent moral tonic, showing weaknesses and passions, lapses and triumphs. After reading autobiographies that fill the soul with hope, you might well say: “Even I can be a painter!”


well worth the look.

The Vega Science Trust aims to create a broadcast platform for the science, engineering and technology (SET) communities, so enabling them to communicate on all aspects of their fields of expertise using the exciting new TV and Internet opportunities.

link to vega!


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