Monday, 24 October 2011

Sex and the Scanner

I have commented on the ridiculous ways in which the media can use results from scanning experiments before, but I feel I should clarify my position on the issue, particularly with regards to MRI (Magnetic resonance imaging).

(In the interest of fairness, I should point out that I've not had much experience with actually using MRI scanners in my previous research, but I have been a subject for the experiments of others many, many times. I'd estimate I've spent over a day in total in an MRI scanner of some form, so I feel sufficiently qualified to comment on MRI scanning in general in the following piece. However, I may well have many more experienced scanning-centric neuroscientists read this who are able to pick me up on errors that I've made. If so, please feel free to leave comments about this and I'll link to them)

First and foremost, I'm all for MRI scanning and other imaging techniques. It's amazing technology, and a modern privilege that I don't think enough people really appreciate. Until relatively recently, seeing your own brain was very rare. It was possible, but given the typical circumstances that would allow someone to see their own brain in the old days, it was probably the last thing they experienced. What they thought about it was impossible to determine. However, thanks to MRI scanners, seeing detailed images of our own, living brain is a common occurrence these days. One could get quite philosophical about that kind of thing, looking directly at the source of our minds, memories, thoughts, feelings, everything we are and every aspect of our being. The fact that it resembles nothing so much as a steroid-abusing walnut just makes it more unnerving for many.

There seems to be this weird view among a lot of non-neuroscientists (or as we call them, Morlocks) that the only thing preventing a complete understanding of the brain's inner workings was the fact that we couldn't directly observe it. Ergo, once you can observe the brain doing its thing, you can figure out how it works. But it's not like this, at all. A smartphone is an impressive bit of technology, but I doubt many people understand exactly how they work. Prising the cover off and looking at the guts of the device probably won't make it less complicated, more likely the opposite. The brain is like this, except orders of magnitude more complex and made of wobbly grey bits.

So, simply putting someone in an MRI machine and making them do a task will not inevitably show which specific part of the brain processes that task. Human's aren't that simple, any task or action will use several faculties at once, and the relationship between mind and brain is still  relatively poorly understood. Useable results from MRI, or more accurately in this context, fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) are obtained by analysis of the blood flow to certain brain regions observed during specific activity. Not neural activity directly, but the (supposedly) associated changes in blood flow as the metabolic demands of certain areas increase in line with activity. This is not as easy as it sounds, and I have not tried to make it sound easy. You need baseline activity rates, threshold readings, anatomical precision which differs from person to person, and so on. It's a very useful, but complicated and time-consuming task.

However, most media mentions of scanning 'experiments' seem to think that you just put someone in an MRI scanner, and if you stimulate them in some way then a bit of the brain will light up. That isn't neuroscience, that's 'Operation'. But still, brain scanning is 'cool', so is often shoehorned into the most meaningless 'science' stories.

This is something that irks me a lot, but you learn to put up with it. But sometimes, this sort of thing can reach satirical levels.

I was recently contacted by Dr Petra Boynton via that there twitter. As a rather clued up and intelligent Sex educator who works with the media quite a lot, she's often contacted by TV types who want to get her input on their latest sex-based documentary, a programme format which seems to show no signs of going away. This is understandable, as they offer an intellectual discourse on one of the more intriguing yet taboo aspects of human society. But also, tits!

Sadly, the majority of sex-based programmes seem to deserve the degree of cynicism with which I've just described them. Many seem to be far more concerned with titillating, provoking strong reactions, conforming to the prejudices of a target demographic, or just mawkishly parading the intimate details of strangers around for the audience to gawp at. An evidence-based and rational discussion of sex, sexual behaviour or its myriad features seems to be way down the list of priorities.

But like I said, sometimes these attempts to dress up our morbid fascination with sex as serious scientific investigation crosses a line, and the whole thing just becomes farcical. Dr Boynton was recently contacted and asked to give an opinion on a new programme which aimed to investigate whether a new type of sex toy could provide measurably more pleasure in women who use it (compared to other sex toys). Why? I don't know, even though I was forwarded the email conversation that occurred. But there you go. They did specify that they wanted to do a proper and respectful analysis of women's sexual behaviours and needs, and if that's true then it's a reasonably noble aim. Dr Boynton's response was very reasonable, what with sex research and education being a lot more complex than most people realise. She advised against the use of things like MRI scanners, on the grounds that a) they are usually just used as a shorthand for impressive science visuals and b) have little or no practical use when it comes to sex research.

The TV people have seemingly decided to go with the use of MRI scanners anyway, purely on the grounds that they look impressive and make for good TV. Lacking sufficient expertise in the area, Dr Boynton then tried to get some more persuasive arguments against this approach from more neuroscientific people. Sadly for her, the discipline of Neuroscience, the media and you good people reading this, that included me. So, if you're someone from the media and are thinking about putting together a programme with a setup like this,  please let me explain why this is unwise.

If I've interpreted them correctly, the suggested experiment aim(s) can be summarised as follows;

Use advanced brain imaging techniques to quantitatively demonstrate that a specific sex toy gives women using it more pleasure than other sex toys, and do this in a way which makes enjoyable television

Now, as you can probably tell from my previous ramblings, I have several problems with this. Let's go through them all.
  •       Measuring 'pleasure' is very difficult: It would be in this context, anyway. There are numerous brain regions that are involved with the processing of rewarding and enjoyable stimuli, I'm not arguing that. But 'pleasure' as a term is like 'intelligence', or 'irony', in that everyone knows what it is, but it's actually quite hard to write down a coherent explanation of it that everyone would agree on. This is even more true of sexual pleasure. How do you measure such a thing? There is no one single thing that every woman finds sexually stimulating (as far as I know), and a person's sexual preferences are a complex neurological system based on their own experiences, biology and so forth. You could feasibly scan the brain activity of a large number of women attempting to achieve sexual pleasure in the exact same way, but the readings would probably be very different. Any data applicable to all of them would probably be too general to be of any use in studying a neurological effect as complex as sexual pleasure. A reputable science programme wouldn't show some meaningless data and then just make their own conclusions, would they?... Would they?... Hello?
  •           Sex and masturbation aren’t the same thing: A minor point, but possibly relevant if you're wanting to make a programme about how sex is perceived/experienced. Although they have a lot of biological and anatomical processes in common, sex and masturbation are perceived and experienced differently. Obviously, as with sex there is at least one other person there, and they tend to be very close (spatially, if not in other ways). This is a very big stimulus (even if one partner does not possess a particularly big stimulus, so to speak) and something that is by definition absent during masturbation, so the sendory processing being done by the bain will be drastically different. Some experiments have apparently revealed that intercourse is a qualitatively different (better?) experience to masturbation, so any results obtained from this TV study may not be applicable to sex, per se.
  •           fMRI requires stimulus to occur in real time: Obviously I don't know the exact set-up for this potential experiment, but I do know that if you want to see what parts of the brain activate in response to specific stimuli, you have to scan the brain while that stimuli is occurring. Ergo, if you want to see what effect a sex toy has on a woman's neural activity, she has to be experiencing it while in the scanner (in this case hving the stimulation occur and then scanning them will give you 'post-coital comedown' data, and that's probably even more vague). Given the remit of the experiment, is this something you can get away with showing on national television? Even if you use the classic 'thermal imaging' cop-out, that's still potentially quite a graphic image to broadcast. I imagine you'll have trouble getting that past the censors, but then I'm not an expert.
  •           fMRI is very sensitive and subjects are secured in place: This is something that really should be flagged up in advance, if you plan to go through with this. Obviously, there are many different types of MRI and maybe I have the wrong idea here, but if you want to do an fMRI, in my experience you have to be very still indeed, as the machine is trying to measure very subtle changes in blood flow through tiny capillaries in a small region of the brain. The precision required to detect such small changes means the subject has their head secured in place very firmly, and usually the rest of the body too. Even minor movements can render the whole thing pointless. Bearing all this in mind, how exactly are you going to measure women's responses to masturbation when they're not allowed to move? Some may prefer to have sex in this manner, but I know women masturbate in a different way to men (this is normally where I'd link to something to back this up, but to be honest writing this piece has already rendered my browser search history quite unspeakable) and it logically must involve a reasonable degree of body movement, particularly if using a sex toy. MRI scanners are also usually require the subject to be inserted into a tube, which necessitates a 'legs closed' bodily arrangement, thus compounding the problem.  If you do want to do this right, you'd probably have to have someone using the sex toy on the women while she's being scanned. In all honesty, I don't think lab techs are trained for this sort of thing. And even if you do somehow get approval to do this, getting to show it on TV would be even more of a headache than the last issue.
  •           Taking mechanical devices into an MRI is seriously not a good idea: Even if you were to get approval for all of the above, and somehow manage to work out a system where you can 'run the experiment', so to speak, how do these sex toys work? Hopefully they're just shaped plastic, but I'm getting the implication that they're mechanical in some way. This should present an insurmountable hurdle as you can't take any metal into an MRI scanner, particularly if it's ferrous. It's best not to even have it in the same room. A lot of people are surprised by this, because if an MRI is completely safe for humans, surely an inanimate metal object would be even less affected by it? But you can use this same logic for a typical bath; a human can sit in the bath without experiencing any ill effects, but throw a toaster in there too and you've got problems. MRI's use incredibly powerful magnets to pick up minute changes revealed by movements in our iron-containing blood. If you've ever watched House, they like showing what happens when tiny amounts of metal find their way into an MRI (I know it's just a TV show, but they've done their research there). Some professionals have also kindly arranged some practical demonstrations. In summary, if you want to have women use a metal-containing sex toy in an fMRI scanner, you may as well have them masturbate using a lit stick of dynamite. It's just as safe, and the results of any 'accidents' would be just as spectacular. I suppose this would make for impressive visuals, but I imagine the sort of audience you'd get for them is not going to be your target demographic.
  •           MRI Scanners; Erotic?: Even if you do manage to get round all the issues mentioned above, being in an MRI scanner is confining, boring, potentially claustrophobic, incredibly loud, very chilly, or possibly all these things at once. Again, I'm not an expert in female sexual preferences, but none of that strikes me as conducive to achieving a state of mind that would be required to achieve orgasm. If you do want to go through with all of this, you'd need the sort of women who would be willing to be filmed masturbating/being masturbated while staying very still in a very distracting and intimidating environment, then having it broadcast on TV. Therefore, the only women you could use would either have some very 'selective' turn-ons, or be the sort of person for whom public displays of bizarre sexual antics are commonplace.  This may be doable, but you're seriously veering away from any noble 'how normal women experience pleasure' ethos you may have started out with.

So, that's why I don't think that programme would work. Even if you do manage to overcome all the problems I've mentioned, what are you left with? Nothing that would give you any useable information, at any rate. It would be cheaper and easier just to set up a fake MRI and have the subjects do whatever it is you want them to do, and just use footage of a different MRI scan, there are plenty around. This may seem dishonest, but it's as scientifically valid as the proposed experiment, and this way is probably much cheaper and frees up an expensive MRI in case anyone wants to do some actual science.

Rant over. I apologise to well intended media types and any disappointed men who have found their way here as a result of a more 'questionable' web search.

Twitter: @garwboy

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Don't read this! It'll destroy your brain! (Susan Greenfield article)

Baroness Susan Greenfield has been at it again. Weirdly, out of all people, I was called on to write a rebuttal piece, for the Telegraph of all things.

However, those who know my writing will probably realise that I'm never that concise and clear. My original piece was more verbose and piss-taking in its tone.

(NB: Any Telegraph readers who have found themselves here, this is usually used as a science-themed comedy blog, not a serious science one. Just a heads up, as odds are you were expecting the latter)

Baroness Greenfield has espoused yet again on the potential damage that video games and other technological entertainments are wreaking on the brains of young people.

The key word there is 'potential'. The potential damage could be quite significant. Similarly, if I get hit by a bus, the potential damage to me could be very significant. But this doesn't mean it's definitely going to happen. The mere existence of a possibility is not cause for alarm. As a result, I don't feel like I'm dicing with death whenever I need to leave the house. If I did, I'd probably have massive anxiety attacks whenever I realise I've run out of milk. I don't, though.

As a doctor of Behavioural Neuroscience who works teaching Psychiatry via an online course, I have a special interest in how our brains are influenced by our behaviours, but also the view that electronic media can damage our brains is, by necessity, almost the exact opposite of my own. If Baroness Greenfield is ever proven conclusively to be right, my job will be the first thing to go, so I'm not exactly unbiased when it comes to her claims.

Admittedly, Greenfield's claims have an element of accuracy to them, but it's always aggravating to see people use some basic facts to support outlandish, harmful conclusions, lending them credibility where shouldn't really be any.

Greenfield recently made several comments on the matter of computer games.

"Technology that plays strongly on the senses – like video games – can literally "blow the mind" by temporarily or permanently deactivating certain nerve connections in the brain, the Baroness said".

First off, 'literally "blow the mind"'? Ten points off for a seriously dubious use of the word 'literally'. What does 'blow the mind' literally mean? 'Blow' as in physically cause to explode? Or 'blow' as in force air into or over something? The former would mean the complete physical destruction of the brain by use of force, the latter would mean exposing the brain to the external environment and applying air pressure to it. Neither of these is particularly beneficial to an individual, and those who have experienced such things seldom survive long enough to confirm whether the experience was enjoyable in any way. If video games did literally 'blow the mind', they probably wouldn't be as popular. Or, in fact, legal.

[N.B. Professional pedantry: 'Mind' in scientific terms has no universally accepted definition, and is presently impossible to measure, observe or quantify, so the majority of behavioural and neurological studies simply have to ignore it as a factor altogether. But I'll ignore that matter here (a certain irony there)].

But pedantry aside, the temporary or permanent deactivation of nerve connections in the brain is implied to be a negative consequence of excessive computer game playing, as opposed to a perfectly normal and actually quite essential occurrence in a typical, healthy brain. A great deal of the brain's connections are actually used for deactivating other connections and processes. Arguably the brain's most powerful neurotransmitter (the chemicals used by neurones to communicate with each other) is gamma Aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is inhibitory, meaning it stops activity in other cells. And it's really good at this.

The constant deactivating of parts of the brain is vital to our functioning as normal cognitive beings. There can be times when too much of the brain is active at once, and these are seldom good things, as anyone who's had a seizure or violent hallucination will probably attest to. You could argue that Baroness Greenfield is referring to specific, damaging connections, but I can only be as precise in my comments as she is being in hers. Areas of the brain being shut down or deactivated is as normal a part of development as losing your milk teeth.

She told the Daily Telegraph last night: "The human brain has evolved to adapt to the environment. It therefore follows that if the environment is changing, it will have an impact on your brain.

Baroness Greenfield is right in this, the human brain does adapt to its environment. And changing in response to a changing environment is what allowed mankind to survive as a species. I'm actually impressed by the way she's managed to take this extremely impressive and vital property of the brain and turn it into a negative. That takes some doing.

"If you play computer games to the exclusion of other things this will create a new environment that will have new effects ... every hour you spend in front of a screen is an hour not spent climbing a tree or giving someone a hug."

The problem here is that this effect is not specific to video games. Anything you do excessively will create a new environment that your brain will eventually adapt to. If you are a keen fisherman you will spend a great deal of time staring at a large volume of water while holding an elaborate stick. Does this have long-term effect on your brain structure? Most likely, yes. Is it seriously damaging? Not that anyone is aware of, in fact most people will argue the opposite. The fish probably wouldn't, but then they rarely say anything of interest.

And yes, every hour you spend in front of a screen is an our not spent climbing a tree or giving someone a hug. And every hour you spend on a train is not spent on a horse. What of it? Every hour spent doing something is an hour not spent doing something else. You may feel that climbing trees is a more 'positive' activity than video games, but that's purely a subjective view. Climbing trees is undoubtedly a healthy, enjoyable past time, but I think most people would agree though that you have less chance of genuinely falling and breaking your neck while playing on an X-box.

And let's be honest, which is more likely to end up at a psychologist's first? A child who plays a lot of video games, or a child who tends to hug someone constantly for a full hour? I know who I'd worry more about.

... the Baroness urged pupils “to be outside, to climb trees and feel the grass under your feet and the sun on your face".

Yes, as above, indeed this is a good idea, but this black-and-white view that outdoors = good, indoors = bad is seriously simplistic and undoubtedly flawed. A lot of bad things happen outside, as a flick through any mainstream newspaper will tell you.

"Screen technologies cause high arousal, which in turn activates the brain system’s underlying addiction and reward, resulting in the attraction of yet more screen-based activity, the Baroness said.

Again, yes. This is a largely accurate statement. But it's annoying how people (scientists in particular) will use long-winded, verbose methods of describing something in order confuse people, and attribute a meaning to it which suits their arguments. In this case, the phrase "high arousal, which in turn activates the brain system’s underlying addiction and reward, resulting in the attraction of yet more ... activity" is more commonly known as 'fun' or 'enjoyment'. This same effect can be seen in football fans or pretty much anyone who has a persistent hobby. The long-term damaging effects of these aren't being questioned, so what sets video games apart as a negative? The intense visual stimuli? The interactive nature of them? The requirement for concentration? The competitive element? All of these factors apply the any sport you want to name.

The visual aspect of video games is only 'intense' or 'excessive' when considered in technological terms. In real terms, you'll still get a more rich and detailed visual experience from opening a fridge. The brain can handle way more than what even the most powerful console can throw at it (although this seems to not be the case for Baroness Greenfield)

The average child will spend almost 2,000 hours in front of a screen between their tenth and eleventh birthdays, she added.

I don't know where this figure comes from, as no references were provided with this piece. But even if it is right, what of it? Welcome to 21st century Western society. Everything has a screen now. I currently own about 7. I've got one in my pocket at all times, odds are you will have too. That's where we get all our information from now.

A while ago, it was books. Some people would spend a lot of time reading books, which are rectangular, information-rich objects that could cause intense arousal and engage many brain regions. But people who condemn books aren't usually respected for it.

Comparing the dangers to the lack of awareness about the health risks of smoking in the 1950s, she said playing too many computer games could cause a shorter attention span and more reckless behaviour in children.

An unfair comparison which does the Baroness no credit. Indeed, the dangers of smoking weren't know about for a long time, too long for many. But this doesn't mean the same is true for everything else. But smoking involves a process whereby poisonous chemicals are inserted directly into the human lungs. Unless you want to melt them down and directly inhale the fumes, video games cannot do this. All they can do is activate sensory and physical processes in people that were in place anyway. By making this alarming, scaremongering comparison, the Baroness could be said to be implying that stimulation can give you cancer. I genuinely don't think she is doing this, but when you make such alarmist comments, you leave yourself open to such criticisms.

Several scientific studies have suggested that playing an excessive number of computer games or spending too much time surfing the internet can have a physical impact on the brain.

Again, I don't know which studies this is referring to, but it's hardly surprising. The key word is 'excessive'. Excess is a negative term, it means 'too much'. You could replace the word 'computer games' in the sentence above with 'poker playing', 'piano lessons' or 'flower arranging' and the outcome would be the same. As stated previously, too much of anything will cause physical changes in the brain (sorry, have a 'physical impact'), as the brain adapts to better deal with your behaviour. That's why we get better at things with constant practice. Again, this is normally something to be appreciated, but here it's a bad thing.

A paper published earlier the summer in the PLoS ONE journal indicated that internet addiction could rewire brain structures in the inner brain, and even cause shrinkage in grey matter.

In a critique of video games, an article about internet addiction is cited. Odd, that. But I've encountered 'the internet'. There are a lot of things on 'the internet'. This term is extremely vague, like describing a hardcore football fanatic as 'fond of competitiveness'. It's essentially correct, but doesn't really tell you the important bits. And once again 'could' stands out like a sore thumb. As far as the brain is concerned, doing anything constantly for long enough could have all manner of detrimental effects. This is not enough to base firm conclusions on, far from it.

Also, if we're being pedantic, the use of the term 'addicted' means the brain has already been rewired. That's essentially what differentiates addiction from 'excessive use'. So brain rewiring can cause brain rewiring? Quite a tautology.

Another study by Japanese scientists ten years ago warned that because video games only stimulate the brain regions responsible for vision and movement, other parts of the mind responsible for behaviour, emotion and learning could become underdeveloped.

'Could' they now? Funny how some so many bad things 'could' happen. I 'could' develop an aneurysm while reading one of Baroness Greenfield's books. It's a distinct possibility, but not enough to have them banned. I wouldn't even think about demanding it.

Every one of Greenfield's arguments seems to boil down to 'Too much [X] causes a normal brain to adapt in response. These brain changes may have negative consequences', where [X] is video games or other electronic distractions, which seem to be her personal bugbear.

But other scientists have claimed that certain games can help the brain in a variety of ways such as treating post-traumatic stress disorder, boosting intelligence and developing the memory.

This is just a positive spin on my main argument. The brain changes, you use certain parts of it a lot for certain tasks, those parts will alter and possibly grow in size and complexity, whereas lesser used parts will atrophy somewhat. Video games are very complex activities, so the brain will become more efficient at performing more complex actions in response. It's unsurprising that this may have beneficial consequences, as well as potentially negative ones.

There are undoubtedly many things to criticise about video games. They can be needlessly violent, they can be quite unrewarding, perhaps it is unwise to subject children to such graphic themes, perhaps they do teach children unrealistic or dubious things. But each of these criticisms can easily be levelled at any entertainment format. I struggle to see how an hour spent coordinating a detailed assault on a virtual enemy stronghold is more detrimental than an hour spent watching naive young people having their ambitions crushed in front of millions on the X-Factor. But that's just me.

The use of electronic media is an undeniable fact of life now, and is changing the way we see the world. In many ways, it's encouraging that so many children become adept at computer-based activities from such a young age; it'll give them more of a chance of making it in an increasingly technical society. It certainly did for me.

Baroness Greenfield clearly has her reasons for disliking computer games and other electronic entertainments, and they well be noble, well-meaning ones. But this does not justify the use of junk science or the public stating of overblown conclusions based on little or no evidence. With every unsubstantiated claim that video games cause children to become socially deficient or distant, Baroness Greenfield in turn distances herself further from the scientific community that once had such respect for her.

Twitter: @garwboy

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