Warning: This Post Will Change Your Brain

By Neuroskeptic | September 21, 2014 6:21 am

Last week I gave a talk in Brazil called Why Is It So Hard To Think About The Brain?, Well, no sooner have I returned than a story appeared that illustrates my point all too well.

A neuroscience paper made headlines around the world on Friday. Here’s Time‘s take:

One Dose of Antidepressant Changes the Brain, Study Finds

One dose of antidepressant is all it takes to change the brain, finds a small new study published in the journal Current Biology.

The study authors took brain scans of 22 healthy people. Some were randomized to take a dose of the most common kind of antidepressant, an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor). After another brain scan three hours later, researchers saw a dramatic change: a widespread drop in connectivity throughout the brain, except where it was enhanced in two brain regions, the cerebellum and thalamus…

Many other outlets covered the research in much the same terms. Here’s the paper: Serotonergic Modulation of Intrinsic Functional Connectivity by Alexander Schaefer and colleagues.

ssri_brain_schaefer

My concern here is over the headlines, in particular that phrase “changes the brain.” This statement sounds like a meaningful (and perhaps alarming) report of a scientific finding. But, in fact, it’s vague and ambiguous. The problem is that the statement can be read on two levels:

As a weak truism: in one sense, almost everything changes the brain: any sight, sound, smell, blog post, or even thought that crosses your mind, will change your brain activity. The brain’s job is to respond to things. Its activity is change. Brain activity is ever-changing and – for that reason – changes are almost always reversible. Every time you open your eyes, for example, widespread changes in your brain activity result. But every time you close your eyes, these changes are reversed. So in this, weak, sense, Time‘s headline is valid. Schaefer et al did indeed find changes in brain activity (namely functional connectivity) in response to a dose of an SSRI. However, this is not exactly breaking news, because the same could be said of thousands of other things.

I think the reason why this study made the headlines is that “changes the brain” can be read in another way:

As a scary strong claim: to many people, “changes the brain” implies that some kind of lasting and important change has been made. The implicit understanding here is that the brain is basically static – it’s ‘default’ behavior is to stay the same. If something is static by default, then whenever it does change, that’s something to write home about. And when something basically static changes, those changes are likely to persist. This ‘static brain’ idea is implicitly dualistic, as I’ve said before: it is based around a vague mind/dynamic vs. brain/static duality. And it is this dualism that, I believe, explains why this story made the headlines.

My argument here is largely impressionistic, but corroborating evidence comes from the fact that some journalists writing up this story ‘defaulted’ to the idea that the SSRI altered brain structure, which is nothing to do with the paper’s actual findings. See for instance the Examiner‘s headline, and the filename of the LA Times story (they must have corrected the headline).

Overall, we have a story that’s appeared with striking and (perhaps) alarming headlines around the world, but I don’t think it should be making headlines at all. These findings don’t have any special interest for the general public.

I’m not criticizing the paper when I say that. These results are interesting for neuroscientists. That a single dose of an SSRI can affect brain activity is of particular scientific interest, because these drugs take a few weeks to have an effect on mood. This is not the first report of rapid SSRI effects, mind. They were demonstrated five years ago (here) using fMRI in humans; over 10 years ago it was shown that a single dose of SSRI affects neurochemistry in rodents (here).

ResearchBlogging.orgSchaefer, A., Burmann, I., Regenthal, R., Arélin, K., Barth, C., Pampel, A., Villringer, A., Margulies, D., & Sacher, J. (2014). Serotonergic Modulation of Intrinsic Functional Connectivity Current Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.08.024

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  • Bronwyn (デイ)

    What I find most terrifying about this is that it just adds support to the belief that SSRIs essentially cause “depression” (in the sense of the mood disorder) in non-depressed brains.

    I’ve seen enough evidence (and side-effect descriptions) to that effect that it doesn’t surprise me, but it just appalls me all the more that GPs’ first reaction to any hint of fatigue and emotional instability (a symptom of chronic stress and/or fatigue and/or sleep disorder) is STILL to prescribe SSRIs despite findings like these.

    • http://www.facebook.com/felonious.grammar Felonious Grammar

      Perhaps one day, medical research scientists will compare SSRIs to a week’s paid vacation, or even an unpaid three-day weekend spent in blissful repose with the family. I know which one I would bet on.

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  • Pedro Oliveira

    Ten days ago I received a Whatsapp from a friend who was in Buzios, RJ and he said: “Hey dude, I’m in an event where the ‘Neuroskeptic’ will give a talk.”

    I imagined that in the talk a guy with a mask or a bucket in his head would appear but he said that although pictures where strictly forbidden the Neuroskeptic showed his face.

    It seems that only a handful of the organizers knew the real identity of Neuroskeptic and my friend chickened out on my suggestion to use “Bauer’s methods” to acquire such information from them.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      😀

      • Pedro Oliveira

        Actually he googled for a long time before figuring out what “Bauer’s methods” meant. 😀

    • Jespersen

      I would have imagined a mask with constantly changing random faces to protect anonymity, like in the movie A Scanner Darkly… yeah.

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

        I would go with constantly changing random fMRI activation blobs!

        • Jespersen

          That would be amazing (and actually informative!).

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  • http://bebrainfit.com Deane Alban

    I just read an article claiming the same thing about coconut oil – that “one dose changes the brain”. (insert eye roll here please) Of course everything you do changes the brain – every action and thought is strengthening neural connections.

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  • http://www.amazon.com/Rolf-Degen/e/B001K1NBP4/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_2 Rolf Degen

    The notion that some intervention (rapidly) “changes the brain” is often also used in a manner embellishing it, suggesting that it is especially powerful (sometimes it is “gene expression” instead of brain activity). I have seen it among others with meditation and psychotherapy. If you wanted to do this the right way, you would have to set up the intervention group against a control group of participants who have the same expectations of change as the experimental group has – a double-blind placebo controlled design. But it is never done that way; they typically only have a waiting list control group, if any. But the waiting list experience is bad for your health, as Neuroskepic nicely showed at another post. But of course, even that changes the brain (and the gene expression).

  • http://www.facebook.com/felonious.grammar Felonious Grammar

    … it is based around a vague mind/dynamic vs. brain/static duality. And it is this dualism that, I believe, explains why this story made the headlines.

    We need a new term that at least tries to express the complexity of the human feeling/thinking/mind/brain/body/social… thingy that keeps getting reduced to the brain. It’s so scientistic and lacking in philosophy. It’s so Nineteenth Century.

    • Hominid

      Philosophy contributes exactly nothing to understanding – it’s delusion.

      • DMachine

        The statement you just made is in fact an epistemological (philosophical) claim, and thus hypocritical and contradictory. Anti-philosophy is itself an important movement within philosophy, as anti-philosophical arguments are based on rational appeals and logic far more than they are on empiricism.

        Furthermore, metaphysical assumptions lie at the bottom of all scientific theorizing, and most especially in the interpretation of empirical results. In fact, empirical results can *only* be interpreted in the context of a model which presupposes certain things about the world and the objects of study. This model may be explicit, but it is, in science, very often implicit and left unexamined by philosophically ignorant scientists or fundamentalist adherents of naive scientism.

        • http://www.facebook.com/felonious.grammar Felonious Grammar

          So many scientifists running around conflating the philosophy of logical positivism with a deep understanding of the hallowed essence of science iself; so little time.

        • Hominid

          BS!

          • http://www.facebook.com/felonious.grammar Felonious Grammar

            I think you did not mean to upvote my comment.

          • Hominid

            I took it as irony. Evidently, I gave you too much credit for intellect.

          • http://www.facebook.com/felonious.grammar Felonious Grammar

            Perhaps so. Or perhaps science without metaphysical considerations is just technology.

          • Hominid

            Silly semantics – you arbitrarily define terms then use your definitions to make silly pronouncements. “Metaphysical considerations” are make-believe. Science is not technology.

          • http://www.facebook.com/felonious.grammar Felonious Grammar

            You need to look up the words “metaphysics”— it doesn’t mean ‘sky fairies’.

          • Hominid

            Yes, it does.

  • Jespersen

    >My concern here is over the headlines, in particular that phrase “changes the brain.”

    Steven Pinker once summarized headlines like this as follows: “Good thing, because otherwise we would be permanent amnesiacs.”

    >These findings don’t have any special interest for the general public.

    Are you absolutely sure about this? I’d say the issue whether SSRI can take *some* effect immediately or over time may have some consequences for the patients relying on it. It may also mean some of the ‘common wisdom’ on how SSRI affects mood may be wrong.

  • RadiantFlux

    Rather than “change” its probably better to say “effect”.

    That is, “the study found that a single dose of SSRIs caused an effect on the brain”.

    This is a true statement, is interesting if we didn’t expect SSRIs to show a single-dose effect, and doesn’t imply that we have a different brain afterwards.

    Compare: “Running unleaded gas on my car CHANGED its engine” with “Running unleaded gas on my car AFFECTED its engine”.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      “An effect” is a lot better than “change”. However, it is still not newsworthy to report that a drug, specifically designed to have an effect on the brain, does have an effect on the brain.

      It’s quite interesting that an SSRI has an immediate effect (single dose) but this is not news either (it’s 5+ years old).

      • RadiantFlux

        Agreed. Using affect/effect emphasizes why it’s uninteresting.

        Presumably “change” was used so the authors could pretend they meant “effect” when pressed by other scientists/journalists, but imply the stronger sense of change at the same time for maximum impact newsworthiness.

        • http://www.facebook.com/felonious.grammar Felonious Grammar

          More specifically, marketers and their minions are saying that IT will induce the change you WANT and you (the target) will have to make no more effort than taking the substance as prescribed. The more failed attempts at exacting that WANT, the more promising the new IT.

      • deniselb

        “However, it is still not newsworthy to report that a drug, specifically
        designed to have an effect on the brain, does have an effect on the
        brain.”

        It is, though, when that drug is also widely reported and widely believed to actually have no affect beyond placebo.

    • http://www.facebook.com/felonious.grammar Felonious Grammar

      Wow, it’s not inert? Perhaps there might even be a point to taking it?

    • daqu

      No. It is better to say “affect” if we’re talking about using a substitute verb. And it’s much better if we can be specific about the extent of the effect.

    • jeb headrick

      Definitely an improvement.
      It seems that science writers, and the public in general do not hold writers covering science news in mass media, as responsible as is merited.
      Too often the problem isn’t only with the writer’s understanding of the specific science covered, but even more fundamental and worrisome, is the lack of a basic understanding science, or the scientific method. Because of which, they often write misleading articles.
      Entirely too often, writers, and even articles from sources that should know better, take preliminary findings (often a single poorly designed study), and convey it as fact and settled / good science.
      Even worse, from an ethical stand point, are those who knowingly twist, and deceive the public for gain (an easy target being weight loss and supplement adds).
      It often seems that mass media outlets speak with too much verity with the intent of being brief, and for better and more gripping soundbites.
      For these errors, whether intentional or unintentional, the writers, reporters, editors, and media outlets, need to take more responsibility for, and simply hold themselves to a higher standing. They are being compensated. Even if not, there are still ethical and moral principles they should be held to.

    • daqu

      Rather than any single word, it is better to be clear. E.g., as in “A single dose of antidepressant can temporarily change your brain.”

      Then again, duh! Of course a single dose of a psychoactive drug will change your brain at least temporarily.

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  • Hominid

    Science journalism is a huge disservice to the general public.

    • http://www.facebook.com/felonious.grammar Felonious Grammar

      The lion’s share, but this here is science journalism, and it’s not so bad.

      • Hominid

        I did not say that science journalism is necessarily bad. I said it was a disservice to the general public. A major reason why that is so is that the vast majority of folks lack the cognitive capacity and education to grasp the presented concepts. It is as likely to lead to misunderstanding as it is to better understanding.

        • http://www.facebook.com/felonious.grammar Felonious Grammar

          Yeah, but giving credit where credit is due is encouraging to those who want to invest in science journalism and are improving the quality of the work, in general.

          I didn’t say that science journalism is necessarily bad, so my apologies if you thought I had.

          • Hominid

            Once again, you miss the point.

          • daqu

            Funny how so many people keep missing your points.

          • Hominid

            Only you.

        • daqu

          But the vast majority of folks — especially those who “lack the cognitive capacity and education to grasp the presented concepts” — don’t bother to read science journalism, either.

          • Hominid

            Many do and many just read misleading headlines.

    • J_R_K

      That may be so, to some extent. I do not consider myself to be a “scientist” but I have always had some scientific curiosity. Science journalism provides me, as a non-scientist, a means to explore and satisfy that curiosity. For myself, understanding concepts does not seem to difficult until I run into math and equations. But principles are not so difficult. One principle, thought not a scientific one, is that truth (yeah, I know, some people think the only truth is that there is no truth) is kind of like your car keys… when you’re looking for them, when do you quit looking? The answer is when you find them. I could be wrong, not being a scientist, but I believe every scientist should understand that kind of thinking. It seems to me that the person who does understand that will eventually learn to understand a concept, assuming that he or she really wants to.

      I would contend that science journalism does not do nearly the disservice to people as that they do to themselves when they are to intellectually lazy to do their own homework. This is also true of other areas of life, such as politics, excellence of performance in doing a job or creating something, even in the area of faith for those who seek it.

      True, I am not a scientist. But if there were no science journalism, I would feel like something valuable had been removed from my world.

      • Hominid

        What you have to realize, however, is that most folks are not like you in this regard.

        • J_R_K

          I hope I never have to live in a world where valuable things are removed because most folks fail to recognize, understand or appreciate them.

          Having said that, yeah, the truth is, there is a lot of junk out there that the world would be better off without. When journalism cross-breeds science and politics, the resultant mess can cost billions of dollars and disrupt millions of lives. We COULD do with less of that kind of junk.

          • Hominid

            I never suggested that “valuable” knowledge be “removed.”

          • J_R_K

            Sorry Hominid. I was just yakking, it was not my intention to make that implication.

  • cwg13

    LSD changes your brain activity also and is a hell of better feeling :)

  • Barry Kort

    It’s hard to think about or otherwise model highly complex systems. The brain is arguably the most complex system we are likely to contemplate over the course of our own lives.

  • logic_everyone

    A person who is depressed may NEED to have their brain changed in order to get well again. Just sayin’

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Depression is anger without enthusiasm. A psychopath is a sociopath with goals. A sociopath is an honest person in an unjust society. The just and proper solution is to make all society insane so that there is neither goal nor penalty to be gained by deviant behavior. If global insanity is outside the budget, then engage local mental healthcare,

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9pD_UK6vGU

  • DS

    Another way to read this. SSRIs change patient motion in the scanner.

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  • johnwerneken

    LOL. News is part of the entertainment business, this stuff is to be expected.

  • Nelli Guyduy

    ok so i am confused, does it or does it NOT cause permanent brain chemisty change? the author just said not to worry about it but then again brought it up sayign a complete opposite. i sense something fishy

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      This study only looked at the effects of a single dose, a few hours later. It doesn’t tell us anything about any hypothetical permanent changes.

      • http://www.facebook.com/felonious.grammar Felonious Grammar

        I’m curious about how many pharmaceutical drugs have been so tested for long range effects in the last forty years.

  • daqu

    Okay, so one glaring omission in this post is any mention of WHETHER ONE DOSE OF ANTI-DEPRESSANT CHANGES THE BRAIN IRREVERSIBLY to any significant degree.

    If this is known or unknown, please let us know the upshot.

  • thesmartmom

    Thank you. When I saw the headline on a crawl I was very concerned. Never had I seen such an idea that a medication could change brain structure. Perhaps reporters and editors should do some research before writing their stories.

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  • Eli Arrives

    “Anti-racists” talk to us about two things:

    1. How White people are genetically evil, how we are responsible for our ancestors misdeeds, and how we don’t actually exist. All of this going in the direction of a future without White children- GENOCIDE.

    2. How they’re not anti-White.

    Who do you think you are kidding?

    That’s why we all know anti-racist is a codeword for anti-White.

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  • Dave Rotheson

    Their testing methods are not sensitive enough to detect the kind of changes that we should be noticing. Scientsists right now dont have the tools to accurately measure cognitive changes. they can see that SOMETHING is going on, they have a few pointers, but there is no instrument yet. all this speculation really doesnt matter. people, including DARPA, have been getting very specific about how to increase the brains abilities. i fear drugs like this are bringing us closer to that next evolutionary step. i fear this because the ones who have taken that step will not care for the ones you have not, just like wealth. bottom line here tho is, if you can tell it helps you, use what you will. just remember the higher up you go, the less empathy you will have for those you left behind.

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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