It’s not all About the Neurones, Part 1: Glial Club

Sometime in 1997, two slightly rumpled academics (who’d rather be in the lab) are standing in a classroom introducing a unit on the “Physiology and Pharmacology of the Central Nervous System” to 30 rumpled undergrads (who’d rather be in bed).

Glee

A still from the hit musical neuroscience show, "Glial Club" (I know, it's a lame pun)

The lights are dimmed and a transparency is slipped on to the whirring projector. A bit of fiddling with the focus and the spartan text appears on screen:

What are “brain cells”?

Two types:

As a member of the rumpled mass I copy these words onto my notepad, adding “- around 90% of all brain cells, from Greek for ‘glue’, provide nutrients for neurones, other housekeeping functions” to the “glial cells” bullet point, in accordance with the words of the lecturer.

And so it came to pass that glial cells feature at the top of the page of the first notes I ever took in the first class I ever took on neuroscience. They didn’t get another look-in at any other point during my brief and unglittering academic career.

No, when it came to the brain we were interested in the 100 billion neurones that, we were told, send all the information buzzing around the brain and make us who we are. Glial cells were viewed by neuroscientists as, at worst, the cranial concrete into which the neuronal wiring is laid and, at best, neurones’ housekeepers.

How times change. Over the last 15 years scientists have realised that glial cells hold considerable sway in how the whole house is run; there hardly seems to be a decision taken where they don’t have some influence. Continue reading

The Importance of Alternatives: Critical Psychiatry and Narrative Therapy

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. But, still, people in the feline flaying business can get so accustomed to the accepted techniques they forget there may be alternative approaches available.

That this idea can be applied beyond the delicate art of cat skinning has been the subject of a couple of the articles I’ve written during my three month long absence1 from My Last Nerve. Both of these articles relate to psychiatry and our approach to mental illness and I’m going to build on them here.

Critical psychiatry: Thomas Szasz and an alternative to the disease model

Dr Thomas Szasz

The idea that psychological and behavioural problems are diseases of some description is now firmly embedded in the popular psyche.

We’ve all heard about depression being some sort of neurochemical imbalance, or how attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is likely caused by faulty genes. In this view, people with schizophrenia are wired wrong and need to be dosed with heavy meds (whether they like it or not) to keep those buzzing live wires from shorting out.

It might not enjoy the same level of publicity or acceptance but there is an alternative approach to mental illness. Many of its proponents belong to the “critical psychiatry” movement and some of them go so far as to reject the legitimacy of the phrase “mental illness” outright.

The best known of these is Thomas Szasz, one of the fathers of critical psychiatry, and a man for whom the words “radical”, “controversial” and “maverick” could have been invented (some of his critics might be inclined to add “mad” to that list). Continue reading

Pop Psychology #1: “Bodysnatchers” by Radiohead / The Mind-Body Problem

(First in a series, set to run every five posts, that will look at songs from the popular canon that deal with issues relative to psychology, psychiatry or – as here – neuroscience.)

From the album "In Rainbows" (2007)

Listen to “Bodysnatchers”

No warning, no shuddering to life, no reason why, the riff just begins. It’s mechanical yet fluid, terrifying and irresistible, a circular algorithm cycling ineluctably to Point A, barely contained by the blistering speakers. Soon enough, harmonics are flying off like sparks from a pinwheel.

Trapped within, a voice:

I do not

Understand

What it is

I’ve done wrong

Who does? Who honestly deserves to live like this? As an invisi-mini-me, a homunculus, locked inside a skull, wired up to all these bewildering inputs, riding around in a fleshy container? Continue reading

Memory in Autism: Interview with Dermot Bowler

Flaking Seaside Mural (Essaouira, Morocco)

Flaking Seaside Mural (Essaouira, Morocco)

Take a minute out from whatever you’re doing, close your eyes, and think back to your last holiday.

The minute’s up. Done it? Of course you haven’t: nobody takes orders from online text. In which case while I’m rambling on here try to imagine closing your eyes and remembering your last holiday.

But trying to imagine remembering something is quite a feat of dissociation; you might have to close your eyes to achieve it. So close your eyes and try to imagine yourself closing your eyes and…

You get the point. Hopefully by now there are little stories and images from your last holiday bobbing around in the back of your mind. How lovely. The way that will have happened, that little exercise in memory recall, probably seems completely “normal” to you.

But many people would remember a moment from their last holiday much in the same way that you remember, say, the boiling point of water in Kelvin1: as “an isolated fact without much self-involvement”. So, your way of doing things (so ego-driven! why do you always put yourself at the centre of everything?) isn’t that normal after all. Continue reading

“Forever Unfulfilled”: Belated Postscript

Two months later, I’m picking up where the last post left off. If you read all 5,500 words of it, congratulations – you don’t have ADHD1. If not, then its starting point was the fact "Mama Weer All Crazee Now"that we’re – yes, that’s right: me and you – spending more and more time pressing buttons and keys, clicking mice and gawping at the result on LCD screens. Then clicking and pressing again. And again. By doing this, I wrote, we’re rewiring our brains so that they resemble “those in the skulls of ADHD patients”. Mama, weer all crazee now.

By a curious twist of fate the very thing that prevented me from blogging for so long also provided the material for this postscript: I enlisted in an experiment to test my own hypothesis. Continue reading

Forever Unfulfilled: Attention-Deficit, Addiction and the 21st Century Brain

This was written back in January but is, I hope, still relevant. I welcome all comments or e-mails on this topic – please do get in touch.

Photograph (C) 2007 James Brooks

The disconcerting background noise rumbling under the crystalline digital audio of the internet age is intensifying. The unsettling idea that our use of modern technology is somehow rewiring our brains has found increasing expression over the last couple of years. And from the titles of the (mostly American) books propounding this hypothesis it would seem that the neural re-fit is a bit of a botch job. There’s Mark Bauerlein’s thundering The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future, UCLA Professor of Psychiatry Gary Small’s iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind and Maggie Jackson’s Distracted: the Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.

Attention, and our decreasing ability to pay any, is a key issue. You don’t have to look very far to see the harbingers of Jackson’s “Dark Age”. Just witness the crisis in publishing as we’re unable to give books – those weighty slabs of text with all their snaking, idea-laden prose – our undivided. Newspapers are similarly too much. We substitute with skim-read internet articles and the inane volleys of YouTube. Blogs look overlong and unwelcoming. Twitter, with its 140-character-per-post limit, would seem to be about as much many of us can handle. Continue reading

Self-Appreciation

On deciding last night that I’d like to kick off this blog by revisiting and deconstructing a work of feature science journalism I admire1, I re-read Will Self’s “Head-hunting for Eternity”, published in Esquire magazine in 1993. The historians among you will recognise this as a date from the long and arduous pre-internet age and the artefact in question hasn’t yet been excavated from its paper bed for online display. In short, I can’t link to it and you’ll just have to take my word that it is what it is.

Will Self

Will Self

The 4000 words of “Head-hunting…” can be found nestled in Junk Mail, a collection of Self’s early  journalism and Self-lovers would do well to buy a copy if only to see how far he’s come as a writer in the last 20 years. Here we catch him in the throes of devotion to his master, William Burroughs, and The Great Junksman plays a lead role in at least a third of the articles2.

Self’s usual satirical conceit is to twist, amplify and distort the mundane through the prism of his sesquipedalian prose. As such he performs the reverse manoeuvre to Burroughs, who depicted his obscene fantasies in a matter-of-fact voice descended from hard-boiled crime fiction. In “Head-hunting…”, however, Self is called upon to investigate a real-world phenomenon straight out of the Burroughs lexicon: cryonics – the “preservation of legally dead humans or pets at […] temperature[s] below −2000F/ −1300C […] in the hope that future technology can restore them to life, youth and health” (as the Cryonics Institute has it). Accordingly, he reins in the prolix, makes like Burroughs and keeps the lunch naked. Continue reading