Archive for May, 2007

Radio Lab explores the power of suggestion

Anton MesmerThe Radio Lab started up a new season on May 18th. I haven’t gotten around to listening to them until now. I just finished the first episode, which is a fascinating program about placebo and the power of suggestion.

The placebo effect is a very interesting subject. Ernest Rossi estimated that as much as 56% of the effect of pain killers is due to placebo, and many believe that percentage may be significantly higher. Radio Lab explores some cases where the effects are identical to actual treatment, and not just for pain killers: for mental disorders, warts, even Parkinson’s!

Of course you cannot talk long about placebo without talking about its natural ally, Hypnosis. Radio Lab reviews some astounding cases of hypnosis, and also takes a look at Anton Mesmer, the inadvertent father of hypnotism and the author of probably the most widespread and well known example of placebo – Mesmerism, or “animal magnetism”.

Radio Lab also explores how the white coat that doctors wear has such a powerful impact on patients, and on the attitude of the doctors that wear them. Users of NP2 may recognize some of this from the “white coat” visualization technique.

Radio Lab, Season 3, Ep 1:

Here is a direct link to the full episode:

Brainwave monitoring changing the way psychiatrists work

As a follow up to the video about EEG-assisted hypnosis, I came upon an article today about how EEGs could be implemented in talk therapy and traditional Psychiatry. 

Running with scissors 

In many ways, modern day mental health is still a series of trials and errors. If you are depressed your psychiatrist may start you out on a regimen of Wellbutrin. After the medicine has been given adequate time to take effect, the therapist will determine if the treatment is working by asking you questions about your subjective experience. If it turns out the drug isn’t working, the dosage may be increased, a new drug may be prescribed or a new approach may be recommended. This can be frustrating for both clients and therapists.

There are a lot of external variables that can make your subjective experience of a therapy’s effectiveness differ starkly from reality. Further compounding the problem is how long it can take for a drug to have a meaningful impact on people, to the extent that one could reliably say “this is working for me.” Under normal circumstances, six to eight weeks will pass before any real benefits will be noticed. Many people are also resistant to specific psychoactive drugs, and some people seem to have very little reaction at all to any drug. 

To help solve this problem, a new EEG device is being developed specifically with psychiatrists in mind. It monitors brainwaves and uses the analysis to determine if a certain drug is having the expected effect. If the drug is doing its job, or is likely to work in the future, brain activity in specific areas will change. Studies of this have shown that it can take as little as a single week to reliably determine if a particular therapy is working – long before any subjective effects would normally be noticed by the patient or therapist.

The new device is also meant to be simple to use, so it can be easily employed with minimal training, and could even be operated by office staff such as a nurse:

Requiring only five electrodes to be placed on a subject’s forehead and temples, rather than 20 or more electrodes scattered over the entire scalp, the device is much easier to use than the EEG systems typically employed in research labs.

The company is now sponsoring a large, multicenter clinical trial to determine if the device can reliably detect antidepressant response. Initial results from the study, presented this week in San Diego at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, are promising. After a week of treatment, the device could predict if a particular drug would work in the longer term 70 to 80 percent of the time.

“Psychiatry is the last specialty without a good diagnostic test to guide treatment,” says Andrew Leuchter, a researcher and psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a study leader. “I think there is a lot of enthusiasm for a quick test that can be carried out in the doctor’s office and inform treatment.” Leuchter’s group did some of the early research underlying the device, and he heads Aspect’s science advisory board.

Aspect expects to finish the trial of more than 300 patients this year and is in talks with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about requirements for regulatory approval. The company eventually aims to market the device to psychiatrists. “Many patients will abandon their medications if they do not feel sufficient improvement in the first few weeks,” says Maurizio Fava, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston. “So having a reliable prediction will help patients stay on track.”

Another device mentioned in the article, called the NeuroStar, is designed to be used with patients that seem resistant to all drugs. It stimulates the brain with magnetic pulses through the skull, and in trials it worked 40 percent of the time. The NeuroStar is meant as an alternative to the very invasive “electroconvulsive therapy”, which requires surgery and has some nasty side effects, but is needed in severe cases where the patient is resistent to drugs.

Though it is not mentioned in the article, audio/visual Brainwave Entrainment could also be a very effective, easy to use and certainly noninvasive way to assist the modern therapist in treating a wide variety of clients. We have many users of our products who experience great relief with BWE where they found none with other therapies. We get a lot of calls from new therapists interested in this technology, most of which heard about it through their clients! Many of them are now sending their patients home with BWE CDs created using our software. Some are even setting up “brainwave entrainment” rooms, complete with a lazy boy, a Light/Sound Synergizer and a laptop to drive the stimulation.

Emerging neurotechnology is going to vastly change the mental health industry in the coming decades .

On the other hand ….

Perhaps someday, a visit to the psychiatrist’s office will resemble a trip to the dentist’s or physical therapist’s office, where a mental hygienist, rather than a dental hygienist, will work on your brain before the doctor comes in to render his final opinion.

I think one of the better aspects of traditional psychiatry is the stereotypical therapist’s office: the couch, the plants, the dim lighting, the shelf full of books probably never read… Many people loathe visiting the dentist or doctor. The lighting is too bright, the mood feels rushed, like an assembly line. I rarely spend more than 3 or 4 minutes with my doctor – most of every visit is spent in the waiting room or talking to the nurse. I think it is important not to let the mental health industry fall into that trap. A therapist’s office should be a comfortable place. Don’t abandon the couch. Instead, employ these new technologies to ensure clients are receiving the best treatment available.

Here’s the article:

Weekly Brain Video: Hypnosis and EEG

A hypnotherapist talks about using an EEG to determine the receptivity level of clients.


Background music tempo affects consumer buying

buy, Buy, BUY!I have often noticed myself driving faster when listening to fast music – the kind you might hear accompanying a chase scene in a Mad Max movie, or a racing video game. Maybe it is out of habit and social mimicry that many people seem to share this experience: we hear and see car chases so often in the media that maybe this fast paced mental state has become a permanent anchor in our mind.

However, it is interesting to observe the same phenomenon when the effect of music tempo is analyzed along side consumer behavior. Here is a quote from the article that inspired this post:

Studies in America have shown that the tempo of background music affects the pace at which shoppers move and diners eat. Faster music in a restaurant can speed up the flow of diners. Slower music can lead people to spend more time in stores, so that they are more likely to buy something. Mr Treasure is a fan of “generative music”, which relies on computer algorithms and is faintly hypnotic. BAA, an airport operator, recently tested a “soundscape” made up of generative music, birdsong and crashing waves at its Glasgow terminal, alternating it daily over a period of eight weeks with silence. (The soundscape can be heard here.) When the soundtrack was playing, takings in the terminal’s shops went up by as much as 10%.

Amazing to think how music, without any brainwave entrainment or verbal additives, can be used to so dramatically affect human behavior. The soundscape linked to above may not affect brain activity directly, but our behavior still changes to “synchronize” with the sound.

Here’s a link to the full article (thanks to Mind Hacks for the link):

Theta’s involvement in choices and learning

Monitoring brainwaves simultaneously in different areas of the brain can yield some intriguing insights into how various parts of the brain cooperate and “talk” to each other.

In a recent study from St. Lawrence University, Theta rhythms in the striatum and the hippocampus were monitored in rats as they went through a maze and made decisions about how to reach the goal. Although these two brain structures are both involved in memory and learning, they are involved in different ways and generally work independently of each other. The striatum is involved in planning and procedures, while the hippocampus is involved in forming memories of experiences or events.

While monitoring these two brain structures, researchers noticed that as choices were made about which way to turn in the maze, theta rhythms in both the striatum and the hippocampus became highly coherent, indicating a link between them, and a link to theta rhythms as an important component in learning and decision making.

“Rhythmic activity in the theta range (7–14 Hz in the rodent) has been proposed to be crucial for mnemonic coding in the hippocampus and related limbic structures. Pathways interconnecting the hippocampus and neocortex are thought to use these rhythms for transferring and coordinating neural representations in cortico-hippocampal circuits in relation to sequential spatial behavior.”

“Simultaneously recorded striatal and hippocampal theta rhythms are modulated differently as the rats learned to perform the T-maze task but nevertheless become highly coherent during the choice period of the maze runs in rats that successfully learned the task.”

“For the rats that learned the task, the magnitude of coherence between the striatal and the CA1 theta rhythms rose to a peak as they reached the instruction tone part of the task, and the coherence remained high or fell only slightly as the rats made a decision about a turning direction and turned.”

“Oscillatory modulation of neuronal activity has been implicated in a wide range of functions, including sensory processing, network coordination, expectancy coding, sequence learning, episodic memory, and interval timing. We demonstrate here that during goal-directed behavior, striatal theta-band oscillations have structured, task-dependent, and learning-dependent coherence relationships with the theta rhythms”

I’ve uploaded a PDF version of the report for our readers: Learning-related coordination of striatal and hippocampal theta rhythms during acquisition of a procedural maze task

Weekly Brain Video: Mind Ball Tournament

Here are 2 videos of an EEG-based game that looks fun and interesting, called MindBall. The idea is that you either relax or concentrate, speeding up or slowing down your brainwaves, causing a ball to move closer to your “goal”.

For our Canadian readers, the first video pits 2 Canadian Idol judges against each other.


This video is of an actual Mind Ball tournament:


Eye exercises provide 10% memory boost

A new study led by Dr. Andrew Parker of the Manchester Metropolitan University found that moving your eyes from side to side for 30 seconds every morning can enhance your memory by, on average, 10%.

He presented 102 university students with recordings of a male voice reading 20 lists of 15 words. The subjects were then handed a list of words and asked to pick out those that they had just heard. On average, the students who had moved their eyes from side to side performed 10 per cent better than the rest. Up and down eye movement was of no use at all to recall.

According to Parker, it can also improve the accuracy of your memory, or reduce “false” memories.

Contained within the lists were “lure” words that were not in the spoken list but were similar to some of those that were. Students who had moved eyes sideways were 15 per cent better at ignoring the misleading words.

Why would eye exercises improve memory? Dr. Parker explains: 

“One reason for this is that bilateral eye movements may improve our ability to monitor the source of our memories.” He said that people are often confused over whether a memory is real or imagined, such as whether a bill was paid or a door locked.

“The problem is to determine the source of one’s memory — real or imagined. Bilateral eye movements may help us to determine accurately the source of our memory”.

Horizontal eye movements are also theorized to enhance communication between the left and right brain hemispheres.

This reminds me of the controversial EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) technique for PTSD, which I admittedly don’t know a whole lot about.

It also reminds me of NLP eye-accessing cues, which also deals with memory.

I have been experimenting with this the last few days since reading the article. I can’t say I have found a major improvement in memory (but then, it is probably hard to consciously notice a 10% improvement in anything). I do, however, enjoy the feeling I get after 30 seconds of uninterrupted side-to-side eye movement. A meditation instructor I had years ago would use eye movement techniques to quickly enter an alpha state.

Here’s the full article:

Meditation sharpens the mind, attention, and the distribution of neural resources

Lots and lots of meditation“You can imagine that life is a series of attentional blinks, and we might be missing an awful lot of what’s going on.” 

This has been all over the news recently, so you might have already heard of it, but since it so relates to what we do I thought I would mention it here anyway.

A group of researchers from the University of Wisconsin have studied the effects of meditation on the brain’s ability to manage its attentional resources. Specifically, they studied the phenomenon known as “attentional blink”, or the inability of most people to discriminate between closely spaced visual targets.

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson explains:

Paying attention to facts requires time and effort, and since everyone only has a limited amount of brainpower to go around, details can get overlooked. For instance, when two pictures are flashed on a video screen a half-second apart, people often miss the second image.“Your attention gets stuck on the first target, then you miss the second one,” Davidson said. This is called “attentional blink,” an effect akin to how you might overlook something when you blink your eyes.

However, meditation appears to decrease this effect, sharpening the ability of the brain to focus attention and recognize targets rapidly.

Davidson studied volunteers before and after training in meditation. Specifically, they were trained in Vipassana meditation (which is often mentioned on our forums by the way).

They found that after meditation training, subjects required less time to spot details than before. Subjects were asked to discriminate between numbers flashed rapidly along with letters on a computer screen. To many people’s surprise, their ability to detect the second number improved within the “attentional blink” time frame.

In recent years, scientists have found meditation affects brain functions. For instance, research into Tibetan monks trained in focusing their attention on a single object or thought revealed they could concentrate on one image significantly longer than normal when shown two different images at each eye. Another study of people who on average meditated 40 minutes daily found that areas of their brains linked with attention and sensory processing became thicker.

I have read similar findings before. One example would be Habituation, or the tendency of the mind to give progressively weaker responses to sensory stimuli. Have you ever noticed how quickly you can become accustomed to sounds in your environment, to the point where you no longer even notice them? That is an example of habituation. It happens with the vast majority of people, but not as much with experienced meditators.

Here is a quote from Professor Shantha Ratnayake:

“To understand these phenomena let us imagine that a person who is reading quietly is suddenly disturbed by a loud noise. If the same sound is then repeated with a few seconds later his attention will again be diverted, only not as strongly nor for as long a time. If the sound is then repeated at regular intervals, the person will continue reading and become oblivious to the sound. A normal subject with closed eyes produces alpha waves on an EEG tracing. An auditory stimulation, such as a loud noise normally obliterates alpha waves for seven seconds or more; this is termed alpha blocking. In a Zen master the alpha blocking produced by the first noise lasts only two seconds. If the noise is repeated at 15 second intervals, we find that in the normal subject there is virtually no alpha blocking remaining by the fifth successive noise. This diminution of alpha blocking is termed habituation and persists in normal subjects for as long as the noise continues at regular and frequent intervals. In the Zen master, however, no habituation is seen. His alpha blocking lasts two seconds with the first sound, two seconds with the fifth sound, and two seconds with the twentieth sound. This implies that the Zen master has a greater awareness of his environment as the paradoxical result of meditative concentration.”

Here’s an article on the topic:

Here’s a link to the University of Wisconsin study:

Also mentioned in the article is what this research could mean for people with ADD/ADHD. Perhaps meditation will be part of a recommended regimen for people with ADD in the future.

Here is another interesting excerpt:

“One of the fundamental mysteries that is now becoming better understood as we go along but which is still a breakthrough area of research is neuroplasticity, the idea that we can literally change our brains through mental training,” Davidson told LiveScience. “Certain kinds of mental characteristics such as attention or certain emotions such as happiness can best be regarded as skills that can be trained.”

Happiness as a skill? What an amazing paradigm shift that would be for most people. :)

Weekly Brain Video: Matrix Jack closer to reality

We’ve talked a lot about detecting brain activity from outside of the skull, but with surgical implants a whole new realm of possibilities opens up.

This video shows a brain implant that looks eerily similar to the “jack” used to access the virtual reality described in the Matrix movies. This jack doesn’t take over your senses, but it does allow you to control a mouse and a robotic hand.


Slow wave magentic pulses simulate deep sleep and prune synapses

TMS - Transcranial Magnetic StimulationEarlier this month an interesting study surfaced from the Psychiatry department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Professor Giulio Tononi, who directed the research, analyzed the use of slow, rhythmic magnetic pulses to induce brain activity similar to that seen in deep, restorative sleep.

It is being touted as a possible cure for insomnia, and a clue into why all animals need so much sleep.

“We have reasons to think the slow waves are not just something that happens, but that they may be important” in sleep’s restorative powers. For example, a sleep-deprived person has larger and more numerous slow waves once asleep. And as sleep proceeds, Tononi adds, the slow waves weaken, which may signal that the need for sleep is partially satisfied.  

While awake, we “observe and learn much more than you think,” he observes. “Tons of things are leaving traces, changing the synapses, mainly by making them stronger. It is wonderful that you can have all these synaptic traces in the brain, but they come at a price. Synapses require proteins, fats, space and energy. At the end of a waking day, you have all these traces of memories left behind.

“During the slow waves, all the connections, step by step, are becoming a little weaker,” Tononi adds. “By morning, the total connection strength is back to the way it was the morning before. The trick is to downscale all the connections by the same percentage, so the ones that were stronger are still stronger. That way you don’t lose the memory.” 

Although the explanation is still a hypothesis, Tononi hopes that the ability to artificially stimulate slow waves will allow him and other researchers to test the notion that sleep restores the brain by damping connectivity between neurons.

Slow waves, he suspects, “Clear out the noise to make sure your brain does not become too much of an energy hog, a space hog. By morning, you have a brain that is energy efficient, space efficient and ready to learn again.”

So, according to Tononi’s hypothesis, slow-wave activity during sleep acts as a kind of mental pruning, or the brain’s version of emptying the recycling bin. 


The technology used in this experiment is called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or TMS. The interesting part is that they found a particular place on the skull to position the TMS device that resulted in more effective stimulation.

“We don’t know why, but this is a very good place to evoke big waves that clearly travel through every part of the brain,” Professor Tononi said.

“With a single pulse, we were able to induce a wave that looks identical to the waves the brain makes normally during sleep.”

I wish the article had gone a bit more in depth as to how TMS was applied in this case – I couldn’t find any specifics on where the TMS device was positioned, or any further information on its use in this research. The technical aspects of this are what I’m really interested in. But then, I’m a big geek with this stuff.


Some are also claiming this type of stimulation could be used to reduce sleep hours from 8 to 2, though I haven’t heard anything from Tononi on this particular point.


Here’s the Science Daily article on it:

Also, here is an interesting take on sleep in general by Tononi: