New Neuroimaging Website

I’ve started an online structural neuroimaging guide for users of Mac OS X. The site can be found here. I am just beginning with it so there is not much information there yet but I hope to slowly expand it and make it a good resource for things related to neuroimaging, particularly structural MRI (including diffusion weighted images). My primary interests are with neuroimaging, neuroanatomy, and neuropsychology; I spend the bulk of my research time doing one of my favorite things – dealing with methods of neuroimaging analysis. While my role is not as technical as some of our collaborators, I enjoy the process of processing MRIs. In the process I have learned a great deal about imaging and wanted to put together a series of guides that will allow others, especially students and novices, to conduct their own analyses. There is a lot of very useful information out there but it is not consolidated into any one locale. One thing I plan on doing is consolidating much of the information into one place and making it easy to follow.

Book Review – Leadership and Self-deception: Getting Out of the Box

I’m going to preface my review by stating that the book I’m going to review is not directly about psychology; it has nothing to do with neuroscience. However, it has everything to do with interpersonal relationships and social interactions, which are two areas frequently addressed in psychology. I do not have any affiliation with The Arbinger Institute; I just enjoyed the book.

The book Leadership and Self Deception: Getting Out of the Box was written by The Arbinger Institute. The work was derived from the ideas of C. Terry Warner, a U.S. philosopher. The Arbinger Institute is a management training and consulting firm that works with businesses and individuals to help them improve their businesses and lives. The 168 page book is easy to read; it is written in a simple prose like a novel.

The main character in the book is Tom, a recently-hired mid to upper level manager at the fictional company Zagrum. Throughout the book Tom mainly interacts with two other characters – Bud, his boss who is the executive vice president of the company, and Kate, Zagrum’s president. Both Bud and Kate take time out of their busy schedules to train Tom about “the box”, which is self-deception.

The gist of the book is that much conflict between people is based on self-betrayal and self-deception. It comes from viewing other people as objects, as “things” that either help or hinder our own progress. The self-deception is that we are more important than other people and that they only exist to help us (or at least not stop us) self-actualize (I’m using different terms than used in the book; the author(s) of the book are not particularly fond of the humanistic concept of self-actualization, by the way). However, we deceive ourselves when we think that if we want to have improved relationships with others – especially if they are strained – then it is others who need to change and not ourselves.

Self-betrayal occurs, according to the author(s), when we are not true to that part of ourselves that is other-centered; this results in self-centeredness. In the book the author(s) give an example of how self-betrayal occurs. I’ll summarize that example.

At night a husband and wife are sleeping. The husband wakes up when the baby in the other room starts to cry. The husband’s first thought is to get up and get the child before his wife wakes up; after all, she works so hard all day and needs all the sleep she can get. The husband’s next thought though is that he too works hard all day and needs to get up early for a meeting. “Why should I get up? My responsibility in this family is to go to work and earn money so we can live. I need all the sleep I can get so I can function at my job – I have a big project to complete tomorrow. [Baby continues to cry]. Why doesn’t my wife get up and get that baby? Doesn’t she realize I need to get sleep? Okay, I know she’s awake now. Why doesn’t she get up? Now she’s just being lazy. [And so on].

These types of thoughts often become self-fulfilling prophecies, such that all our our own actions and thoughts inflate our self-worth (i.e., we do see ourselves as good, hard-working people) while simultaneously deflating the self-worth of another (i.e., we attribute certain attributes to them – “lazy” or “inconsiderate” – and then much of what we see them do after that only supports that hypothesis). While this specific example has not occurred with everyone, we have all experienced similar situations. Maybe the situation is at work where you had a thought that you should do something but then didn’t do it. When it created a problem you were able to rationalize your behavior and blame someone else (“I would have done X had Susan done her job” or “I was just too busy with other things to get X done.”). Basically, self-betrayal results from not being true to what you [hopefully] know is the right thing to do. When we don’t do what we know is right, the normal human response is to rationalize and justify our action or inaction in order to protect our egos, per se. This leads to us shifting the blame from ourselves onto others. We start to view others as hindering our progress; when this occurs they stop being people and start being objects (in other words, people are viewed as either starting blocks or stumbling blocks – they help or hinder us).

It is relatively straightforward to see how this can lead to interpersonal problems – at home or at work. The problem is that we do not know that we are betraying and deceiving ourselves, so we continue to ascribe most of our problems to others. The author(s) further points out that even if we recognize our self-betrayal and self-deception, we never will completely be free of these behaviors; however, we will be able to reduce these negative behaviors and improve our relationships with others.

Overall, this book provides an important and novel way to approach interpersonal behavior. The overarching message is that we should not worry about changing others (or even ourselves! – but I’ll let you read the book to understand that); we should instead recognize that the problem lies within ourselves and go from there. One very creative application of this philosophy is how this is being applied in businesses to increase productivity, human relations, public relations, and even the profitability of the company. I’ll let my readers read this book to understand how this philosophical approach to other-interaction can help a business make more money.

One of my criticisms of this approach to interpersonal behaviors is that it is fairly esoteric and difficult to grasp conceptually. That’s not necessarily a negative; however, it means that most people will really have to study and ponder on the concepts in order to understand them. The book also only serves as a brief – but important – introduction to the topic, leaving one a bit unsure exactly how to implement this new attitude and these new behaviors in one’s own life (although, there is enough information in the book that an astute reader can understand enough to follow this method of interpersonal interaction). This is where the Arbinger Institute’s training workshops and seminars come in. Additionally, C. Terry Warner wrote a book called Bonds That Make Us Free: Healing Our Relationships, Coming to Ourselves, which is a more complete description of the concepts found in Leadership and Self-deception.

I recommend the book Leadership and Self Deception: Getting Out of the Box to anyone seeking to develop insight about themselves and their interpersonal interactions.

An Introduction to and Overview of the Brain

bi sang by seung ji baek

The human brain is a wondrous thing. It is the single most complex organ on the planet. It sits atop the spinal cord. Gazing upon the brain, one sees four main distinct areas – two roughly symmetrical hemispheres, a cerebellum stuck up underneath the posterior part of the brain, and a brainstem sticking out and down from the middle of the brain. Each cerebral hemisphere is divided into four visible lobes: frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital. The frontal lobes jut out at nearly a 90 degree angle from the spinal cord and are the largest part of the human brain. The temporal lobes stick out the sides of the brain, like thumbs pointing forward at the side of a fist. The parietal lobes are harder to distinguish. They are just posterior to the frontal lobes and dorsal to (above) the temporal lobes. The occipital lobes are at the very back of the brain, like a caboose on a train.

The outside of the brain is covered with a series of bumps and grooves. The bumps are called gyri (sing. gyrus) whereas the grooves are called sulci (sing. sulcus). This outside part of the brain is filled with tiny cell bodies of neurons, the main functional cell of the brain. Some people estimate that there are 100 billion neurons in the central nervous system (brain + spinal cord). This outer layer of the brain is called the cortex (which means “bark”). The cortex is only about 5mm thick, or about the thickness of a stack of 50 sheets of copy paper, yet it is responsible for much of the processing of information in the brain.

At room temperature the brain is the consistency of warm cream cheese. If removed from the skull and placed on a table, it would flatten and widen out a bit, like jello that is warming up. The brain is encased in a series of protective sheaths called meninges. The outermost encasing is called the dura mater (L. “tough mother”), which is thick and tough and is attached to the skull. The next layer in is softer. It is called the arachnoid layer; it adheres to the brain. Just underneath this layer is where cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) flows. This fluid is produced in holes in the middle of the brain called ventricles. CSF helps cushion the brain as well as remove waste products from the brain. Underneath this is a very thin and fine layer called the pia mater (L. “soft mother”), which adheres directly to the cortex and is difficult or impossible to remove without damaging the cortex. These three layers of meninges serve to protect the brain.

The brain can be roughly split into three functional areas, each one more “advanced” than the previous. The brainstem (and midbrain), which includes such structures as the medulla, pons, and thalamus, activates and regulates the general arousal of the cortex. Damage to the brainstem often results in coma or death. The next rough functional area is the posterior portion of the brain (parietal and occipital lobes and portions of the temporal lobes). This area is heavily involved in sensory processing – touch, vision, hearing. It sends information to other parts of the brain largely through the midbrain structures. The last functional area includes the frontal lobes. This area can regulate all other parts of the brain but is essential for goal-setting, behavior inhibition, motor movements, and language. The frontal lobes are the most advanced area of the brain and arguably the most important for human functioning – for what makes us human. In summary the three areas roughly are responsible for:

  1. Overall arousal and regulation
  2. Sensory input
  3. Output, control, and planning

Underneath the cortex is a large area of the brain that looks white. This area is comprised of the axons of the neurons of the cortex and subcortical structures. These axons are the pathways between neurons – like superhighways connecting cities. The axons look white because the majority are covered with a fatty tissue called myelin. Myelin helps axons work more efficiently and transmit more quickly. The white matter of the brain is as important for normal brain functioning as the gray (neurons) matter is.

The brain is energy-hungry. It cannot store energy so it needs a constant supply of nutrients from blood. However, blood can be toxic* to neurons so the brain has to protect itself from the blood and other toxic materials through what is called the blood-brain barrier. This barrier keeps blood cells out of the brain but allows molecules of nutrients (e.g., glucose) to pass into or feed the cells. The entire surface of the brain is covered with blood vessels, with many smaller vessels penetrating deep into the brain to feed the subcortical structures. Deoxygenated blood must be removed from the brain. Veins take the blood out of the brain and drain into venous sinuses, which are part of the dura matter.

The brain works as a whole to help us sense, perceive, interact with, and understand our world around us. It is beautiful in its form and function.

*”Today, we accept the view that the BBB limits the entry of plasma components, red blood cells, and leukocytes into the brain. If they cross the BBB due to an ischemic injury, intracerebral hemorrhage, trauma, neurodegenerative process, inflammation, or vascular disorder, this typically generates neurotoxic products that can compromise synaptic and neuronal functions (Zlokovic, 2005Hawkins and Davis, 2005 and Abbott et al., 2006).” From Zlokovic, B. V. (2008). The blood-brain barrier in health and chronic neurodegenerative disorders. Neuron57(2), 178-201.

Image: Bi Sang by Seung Ji Baek

Patient Presentation and Mood States

When writing or talking about medical patients or therapy clients, it is helpful to describe their presentation. You cover things such as appearance and grooming, mood, openness, language, and thought process. How a client looks can reveal a lot about their lives, stressors, and their overall cognitive functioning. How open they are with you as a doctor or therapist is also important to note. Sometimes people are reticent to talk about themselves (which is very understandable) and very distrustful in general. Some people also don’t know how to talk about themselves, so they don’t.

The language people use also reveals their underlying cognitive functioning. Tangential language, disjointed speech, and slowed speech, for example can mean different things – a thought disorder, depression, acquired brain injury, and so forth. Related to language is a person’s thought process; this is apparent from their language but also in how they describe their problems or their lives.

When discussing mood, there are three general terms doctors use. The first is euphoric – extremely happy. Sometimes it is appropriate for people to exhibit this emotion but it can also be a sign of mania, especially if the positive mood was not seemingly triggered by anything. The next term for a mood state is euthymic, meaning normal, slightly positive mood. This is the mood that most people exhibit most of the time. It is neither positive nor negative (again, with a slight positive lean). The last descriptor for mood is dysthymic, which means depressed or having negative affect.

The Death of Psychotherapy

I’m going to preface my post by stating that the following post was written to help me think through the relationship between neuroscience and therapy. As such, it is a philosophical journey through some of my thoughts and is not even necessarily what I really believe because I’m still working on discovering what I believe. Thought processes like this are one way I try to keep some of my beliefs about psychology and neuroscience balanced. If I start leaning too strongly one way, I’ll start looking for things that disconfirm those beliefs and see what I discover. It’s a bit of playing the Devil’s Advocate with myself and a bit of philosophizing. Some of my friends and I used to do things like this in junior high and high school – having philosophical discussions where we discussed things and even tried to argue for things that we didn’t necessarily believe (e.g., classic topics such as supposing that this world and universe really aren’t real but are just reflections of reality. Again, that’s not something I believe but we would speculate). What does this all have to do with psychology and neuroscience?

The brain is what drew me to psychology initially. However, I vowed I would never go into clinical psychology because I didn’t think I would like therapy or dealing with people’s problems. Over time I discovered neuropsychology. Most neuropsychologists are clinical psychologists so in order or me to be a neuropsychologist, I had to be trained as a clinical psychologist. There are many things I enjoy about clinical psychology but therapy is not one of those things. Granted, most neuropsychologists do not actually do therapy, but we have to be trained in it. I enjoy talking with people in sessions but I haven’t been that impressed with therapy as a whole so far. Maybe that’s just because I haven’t exactly found the particular type of therapeutic method that really “clicks” with me. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is fine but so much of actual therapy in practice is just plain common sense. However, not everyone has a lot of common sense so they need some training in it. Part of me recognizes the validity of therapy but another part of me struggles with it. Now on to my main article.

The more I study the brain and the more exposure I have to therapy (giving, not receiving), the more biased towards the brain I become. What I mean is that we continue to discover more about the brain and as we discover more, the more behavior we can explain based on biology or neurophysiology and the less important I think therapy is. I’ve written about this topic in the past but wanted to briefly revisit it. This is somewhat of a second chapter to that post. Before I continue I wanted to expose one of my biases; I believe humans have free will. Even though some of my beliefs about the brain could be seen as mechanistic and deterministic, I do not believe that a strongly-biological foundation for behavior rules out free will. You can still assume biological foundations without assuming determinism. If, for example, you have a monistic set of assumptions that incorporates both mind – “nonmaterial” – and body – “material” – in one. [I have quotes around nonmaterial and material because mind is not necessarily nonmaterial and body is not necessarily material, well at least philosophically speaking]. Monism is a similar idea to a unified field theory (e.g., Grand Unified Theory) or the Theory of Everything for which some theoretical physicists are searching. That’s not what I’m going to write about and if it didn’t make sense, then don’t worry about it (I discussed this topic in a couple different posts: here {I linked to that post previously} and here). To summarize, I view behavior through a strong biological bias but I do not assume determinism.

As I said earlier, the more I learn about the brain and behavior (through research and observation), the more I lean towards neuroscience and away from “traditional psychology.” However, I still appreciate the psychosocial aspects of behavior; the nature versus nurture dispute will never be resolved because both are important. The environment is important  – all external stimuli are important – but the problem with downplaying biology is that it is the medium of behavior. What I mean is, everything we think, sense, perceive, or do is translated and transmitted through the firing of neurons. This means that all abnormal behavior, which is what psychologists often are interested in, originates in a neuron or related cell. Whether or not the cause of that behavior was internal or external is irrelevant. All events and stimuli are translated into patterns of neuronal firings.

This is why I think that understanding the biology of the brain is the best way to understand a person’s behavior. However, because we have an imperfect understanding of the biology of the brain, we have an imperfect understand of the biological foundations of behavior. This means that until we have a perfect understanding, we cannot ignore the psychosocial aspects of behavior; even with a perfect understand we couldn’t either because even if we understand the “translation” process we may not understand the origin of what needs to be translated. This is where traditional talk therapy can be most beneficial. However, I still believe less and less that talk therapy is the best solution for dealing with many psychological issues. Over time as we discover more and more about the brain, therapy will become even less important.

That is a fairly radical position to take as a student of clinical psychology – it’s more in line with psychiatry, or rather, I believe it’s more in line with neuroscience. I’m not saying that therapy is useless, I’m just saying that as we gain a more perfect understanding of the brain and how various chemicals interact in the brain, we will have less need for people to help others by “talking” through their problems. The better we understand the physiology of the brain, the more natural our pharmaceuticals will be. In other words, it will be easier to mimic and create normal brain functioning. Of course, many will ask, “What is normal?” That’s a good question.

Some may argue that with depression, for example, many people will have negative image and self-evaluations, which can lead to depression. That is true but it’s the classic chicken and egg question. Which came first? Did the negative thoughts cause the depression or did the person experiencing negative thoughts have a biological predisposition to those thoughts and depression? In other words, it is possible that biology originally led to the negative thoughts and not vice versa. This is all speculation but I think there is increasing evidence for this view.

The big problem with my point though is that at some point, it does become a deterministic system in that it’s possible that we could medicate away people’s free will. This is an unacceptable outcome. There would be a lot of power with this knowledge and many opportunities for abuse. That’s an ethical discussion for a later time.

To summarize, I think that as we (speaking in the collective) gain a more perfect understanding of the brain (and even individual differences in the brain) we will be better able to eradicate and prevent many or most psychological disorders. We could potentially stop schizophrenia through genetic engineering or other modifications. Again, I’m not addressing whether or not we should but I believe we will have the ability to at some point. This is why, at the moment I lean more towards neuroscience than I do psychotherapy. Of course, tomorrow I could [I won’t] write a post that completely contradicts this one. As I said, this is a process. I think it’s important to argue both sides of the issue.

Learning and Recall – Hippocampal Firing

Today in Science a team of scientists (Hagar Gelbard-Sagiv, Roy Mukamel, Michal Harel, Rafael Malach, and  Itzhak Fried) at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, UCLA, and Tel Aviv University published their research where they directly recorded via implanted electrodes the firing of hippocampus neurons during learning and free recall. This represents the first time in humans this has been done. Here’s the abstract from Science:

The emergence of memory, a trace of things past, into human consciousness is one of the greatest mysteries of the human mind. Whereas the neuronal basis of recognition memory can be probed experimentally in human and nonhuman primates, the study of free recall requires that the mind declare the occurrence of a recalled memory (an event intrinsic to the organism and invisible to an observer). Here, we report the activity of single neurons in the human hippocampus and surrounding areas when subjects first view television episodes consisting of audiovisual sequences and again later when they freely recall these episodes. A subset of these neurons exhibited selective firing, which often persisted throughout and following specific episodes for as long as 12 seconds. Verbal reports of memories of these specific episodes at the time of free recall were preceded by selective reactivation of the same hippocampal and entorhinal cortex neurons. We suggest that this reactivation is an internally generated neuronal correlate of the subjective experience of spontaneous emergence of human recollection. (Published Online September 4, 2008; Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1164685)

The New York Times also has an article about the research.

Brodmann’s Map of the Cortex

I’ll be writing some basic neuroanatomy posts over the coming months (I started with my previous post about the corticospinal tract). I recently finished an intense neuroanatomy course where I learned how much I love basic neuroanatomy. It’s exciting to look at a brain or brain slices and try to figure out what and where different structures are.

In the early 1900s Korbinian Brodmann studied the cytoarchitecture (organization of the cortical layers of neurons) of human and non-human brains. His work was painstaking and thorough. He created a topographic map of the cortex containing 52 (50 in humans) different areas. In my class we were not required to learn all of Brodmann’s cortical areas but had to learn some of the major ones. Brodmann’s Areas (BA) 3,1, and 2 compose the primary somatosensory area of the brain. BA 4 is the primary motor cortex. BA 5 is somatosensory association cortex just posterior to BA 3,1,2. BA 6 is pre-motor cortex, which connects directly to BA 4. BA 7 is more somatosensory association cortex that lies just posterior to BA 5. BA 8 is the frontal eye fields, which among other things is responsible for initiating horizontal eye saccades (i.e., quick movement to the left or right). BA 17 is the primary visual cortex, a credit card sized area that lies both dorsal and ventral to the calcarine fissure in the occipital lobe. This area processes most of the basic visual information. BAs 18 and 19 are visual association cortices. BA 22 is Wernicke’s Area, which is involved in the comprehension of language and is in the dorsal-posterior temporal lobe on the border between the temporal and parietal lobes. BAs 41 and 42 are the primary auditory cortex, which processes auditory information from the cochlea; this lies on the transverse temporal gyrus in the dorsal part of the temporal lobes (it is hidden from view unless the cortex around the Sylvian Fissure is pulled away). BAs 44 & 45 are Broca’s area, which is involved in the production of language and is in the lateral frontal lobes.

The Corticospinal Tract

The corticospinal tract is a descending motor pathway originating in the Primary Motor Cortex (Brodmann’s area 4) and terminating at various levels in the ventral horn of the spinal cord. The corticospinal tract descends through the posterior limb of the internal capsule then down through the cerebral peduncles into the brainstem. In the brainstem the corticospinal tract remains in the ventral portion, passing through the pyramids on its way down. In the caudal brainstem (just above where the spinal cord starts) 90% of the the corticospinal tract decussates (crosses) to the contralateral (opposite) side and continues down through the dorsolateral spinal cord. This portion controls limb movements. The remaining 10% remains in the ventral spinal cord and is largely responsible for bilateral axial (trunk) movement. From the dorsolateral spinal cord, the axon (that started in the cortex) enters the ventral horn of the spinal cord at the appropriate level (e.g., cervical for arms or lumbar for legs) then exits through the ventral root to terminate on the appropriate muscles.

Through this tract, the cortex controls much of the movement of the body; as such, it’s vitally important for our functioning. Damage to the tract results in an upper motor neuron disorder, with paresis (weakness instead of complete paralysis) and the Babinski reflex fairly common symptoms. Soon after damage, a patient might have flaccid paralysis though with little to no movement of the affected limb(s). As the body starts to recover slightly, spastic paralysis usually sets in with jerky, often uncontrolled limb movements. The corticospinal tract is one of the largest pathways in the central nervous system; it’s one of the most important for motor functioning as well.