I've spent the weekend at the Eschaton 2012 conference in Ottawa. Organized by Ottawa's Centre for Inquiry, the theme for the weekend is "The World is Probably Not Ending, Now Stop Worrying and Celebrate Reason." With a roster of speakers including P.Z. Myers, Eugenie Scott, Ophelia Benson and Larry Moran, it was a great way to celebrate the non-end of the world.
More on that later...
In the meantime, here are some stories I've been following:
How well does the brain compensate after traumatic brain injury? Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University and Montefiore Medical Center have used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to examine patients recovering from concussions and may have found a new technique for predicting improvement. Science Daily has the details.
Science Daily also provides this intriguing news story that suggests that people are a lot less observant than they might think. A social psychology study involving 54 people who work in one building were asked if they knew where the fire extinguisher nearest to their office was. Despite the fact that all of them passed the bright red fire extinguishers on a daily basis (some for years), only 24 per cent knew the correct location. Then again, all of them were able to find the extinguisher in seconds (and most were surprised they had never noticed them). So, where is the nearest extinguisher in your building?
Where do you stand on the issue of forced treatment for psychiatric patients? This was a critical issue when I worked in the prison system since forced treatment was not allowed for mentally ill prisoners no matter how severe their symptoms were (forced treatment was only allowed in psychiatric hospitals and maximum security prison hospital wards did not qualify). The question of forced treatment seems especially controversial when it comes to forced electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Should ECT be exempted from the usual FDA restrictions on other psychiatric medications? John Grohol of World of Psychology weighs in with his own throughs on this troubling question.
When it comes to medical fraud, there can be such a thing as overachievment. Dr. X describes this bizarre story from the Chicago Sun-Times and the enormous lawsuit faced by Chicago psychiatrist, Dr. Michael J. Reinstein. Along with taking kickbacks from drug companies, the good doctor is charged with filing 140,000 false Medicare and Medicaid claims. All told, the penalties could exceed $2 billion in this case (I hope his insurance covers this).
Interested in the brains of famous scientists? Boing Boing talks about a 1909 edition of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London and the dissection of Charles Babbage's brain. Prior to his death in 1871, the great scientist left directions that his brain should be donated to science and his family followed through with his wishes. Along with becoming part of medical research, half the brain is now on display at the Hunterian Museum in London while the other half is in the nearby Science Museum. And here I thought giving someone a piece of your mind was just a figure of speech...
While civil rights organizations welcomed Governor Jerry Brown's signing of a California law banning conversion therapy for gay minors, conservative groups have already vowed to fight the law scheduled to take effect on January 1. In the first move of what is likely to be a protracted legal battle, lawyers for counselors who use "reparative therapy" and parents who claim that their teenaged children benefitted from it are asking a judge for a temporary injunction to delay the bill's passage. The lawyers are arguing that the bill (known as SB1172) violates their First Amendment right to freedom of speech and religion. State attorneys are arguing that the ban is appropriate since it protects children from therapy already considered harmful by mainstream mental health organizations. More details here.
While parents of autistic children are understandably desperate for any kind of treatment for their children, just how much harm can unproven treatments such as "chelation therapy" actually do? Dr Steve Novella provides this sobering overview of how chelation therapy can be misused to treat autism and the potential risks involved.
FMRI has been used to explore creative processes in the brains of opera singers and actors, but what about professional rappers? Which regions of the brain are associated with freestyle rapping and what can this research show about the links between brain language areas and creativity? Christian Jarrett of Psychiatry Fun has the details.
Speaking of brains, can brief exercise help improve memory functioning in older adults? How about older adults suffering from mild cognitive impairment? Science Daily reports on some new research showing the beneficial effects of even short bursts of moderate exercise on memory functioning in people from 50 to 85.
Mental Floss provides this fun and educational overview on the complex problem of getting computers to understand human speech. It's not as easy as you might think...
And that's it for this week. More on Eschaton next time.