What’s the News: A new study suggests that watching brain activity when subjects are shown images of naked children can identify which are pedophiles. But what does this really mean in practical terms?
What’s the News: The best way doctors have to find out how much pain a patient’s in is to ask—but that approach can fall short when someone’s unable to speak, exaggerating or downplaying their condition, or just plain unsure how to rate their pain on a 10-point scale. Because of these problems with self-reporting, scientists have long been looking for an objective, physiological measure to quantify pain. A recent brain scanning study, in which the researchers could pick out painful experiences based on neural activity, brings that goal closer.
What’s the News: Starting in September 2012, the FDA will require every pack of cigarettes sold in the US to be emblazoned with a large, text-and-image health warning, similar to the labels already seen in Canada, the United Kingdom, Brazil, and several other countries. The FDA unveiled the nine label designs earlier this week; several are quite graphic, including photos of cancerous lungs and lips and a man exhaling smoke through his tracheotomy hole.
These graphic images, however, may not be an effective way to get smokers to quit, or deter new smokers from starting. Several neuroscience and psychology studies show that these fear tactics have little effect—and may at times do more harm than good.
What’s the News: A number of recent studies have suggested that brain scans could be used to diagnose autism. Virginia Hughes investigated these claims in a report for the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative. While some researchers feel these tests could soon be ready for the clinic, she found, others feel that relying on the scans for diagnosis is at least premature, and perhaps entirely misguided. Some important points in her report:
How the Would-Be Autism Tests Work:
What’s the News: It’s always a gamble when a record company decides to sign a new band, as they can never truly predict which artists will be successful. Sometimes marketing firms will use focus groups to guess at future musical gold mines, but conflicting motivations, among other things, can hamper results. Now, researchers have found that while you may not be able to consciously pinpoint which songs will be hits, your brain just might.
When Don Draper takes a long, cool drag of his cigarette on screen and fills his “Mad Men” office with smoke, does it subtly nudge you toward lighting up yourself? If you’re already a smoker, there’s a good chance. A new study forthcoming in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that watching on-screen smoking subtly effects the brains of people who already smoke, as if it were prepping them to light up.
They chose this movie because it features lots of smoking without alcohol use, sex or violence, which could have skewed the results. The volunteers did not know the experiment was about smoking. [LiveScience]
Dylan Wagner’s team peered into the brains of 17 smokers and 17 non-smokers who watched Matchstick Men while inside an fMRI scanner.
Autism researchers already knew that a variant of gene called CNTNAP2 that appears in about one-third of people is associated with higher risk for developing the condition. A study this week out in Science Translational Medicine puts that genetic marker together with what it appears to do in the brain: cause too many connections inside the frontal lobe of the brain, but too few from there to other brain regions. That could be a key clue in unraveling the learning and language difficulties that frequently appear in autism spectrum disorders.
The gene produces a protein called CASPR1 and is active during brain development — mostly during frontal-lobe development. “During early development, it is localized to parts of brain that are ‘more evolved’ — areas where learning and language happen, the frontal lobes where really complex thinking takes place,” says Ashlee Scott-van Zeeland, a postdoctoral fellow at the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and lead author of the study. “[It is] thought to help structure the brain.” [TIME]
To study its effects, Scott-Van Zeeland and company studied 32 kids between 11 and 13 in age. Some were autistic, some not, and many of the non-autistic kids carried the CNTNAP2 gene variant. The scientists examined the children’s brains through fMRI while the kids played a game intended to stimulate brain regions that the gene affects.
You may be talking and I may be listening, but our brains look strikingly similar.
That’s the conclusion of a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week. After conducting brain scans of a woman telling a story off the cuff and then of 11 people listening to a recording of her, researchers Greg Stephens and Uri Hasson say they found that the same parts of the brains showed activation at the same time, suggesting a deep connection between talker and listener.
Graduate student Lauren Silbert was the team’s storytelling guinea pig. She recounted tales of high school, like deciding whom to take to prom, while undergoing an fMRI scan.
As Silbert spoke about her prom experience, the same areas lit up in her brain as in the brains of her listeners. In most brain regions, the activation pattern in the listeners’ brains came a few seconds after that seen in Silbert’s brain. But a few brain areas, including one in the frontal lobe, actually lit up before Silbert’s, perhaps representing listeners’ anticipating what she was going to say next, the team says [ScienceNOW].
A federal judge overseeing a case in Tennessee has rejected the use of functional MRI brain scans as evidence of a person’s veracity in court proceedings. As DISCOVER noted before, the Tennessee case follows one in Brooklyn where the judge also said no under New York State law. Together, the two rulings mean it could be a long time before lawyers can admit brain scans as evidence of truth-telling in courts.
Lorne Semrau was seeking to include the results of scans as part of his defense in a Medicare and Medicaid fraud case being heard in a federal court in Tennessee. But while Judge Pham agreed that the technique had been subject to testing and peer review, it flunked on the other two points suggested by the Supreme Court to weigh cases like this one: the test of proven accuracy and general acceptance by scientists [ScienceNOW].
Proponents of fMRI lie detection claim that monitoring a suspect’s brain while he answers questions about his behavior and the allegations against him can reveal whether he’s answering honestly or lying. But while the utility of fMRI brain scans is accepted in many areas of brain research, most neuroscientists say their usefulness as lie detectors is still an open question.
Wide acceptance among scientists is also a part of the New York standard with which Judge Robert H. Miller rejected fMRI as evidence in the Brooklyn case. So while fMRI lie detection experiments continue to undergo peer review, the technique likely won’t become admissible evidence anywhere until the scientific community begins to accept that such scans really could identify honesty at a reasonable level of confidence.