Keeping hope alive: Brain activity in vegetative state patients

Thirteen year-old Jahi McMath went into Oakland Children’s Hospital on December 9 for a tonsillectomy. Three days later she was declared brain-dead. Severe complications from the surgery resulted in cardiac arrest and the eventual tragic demise of Ms. McMath; and while neurologists and pediatricians at the hospital have declared Jahi brain-dead, her family refuses to accept the doctors’ diagnosis, fighting to keep her on life support.

This heartrending battle between hospital and family is sadly not a new one, and there is often little that can be done to compromise the two sides. However, neuroscientific research in recent years has made substantial developments in more empirically determining if there are still signs of consciousness in vegetative state patients, which can either bring hope to a desperate family, or provide stronger footing for doctors trying to do the more difficult but often more humane thing.

Can synesthesia in autism lead to savantism?

Daniel Tammet has memorized Pi to the 22,514th digit. He speaks ten different languages, including one of his own invention, and he can multiply enormous sums in his head within a matter of seconds. However, he is unable to hold down a standard 9-to-5 job, in part due to his obsessive adherence to ritual, down to the precise times he has his tea every day.

Daniel is a savantHe is also autistic.And he is a synesthete.

Drug use, decision-making and the blunders of Rob Ford

Toronto mayor Rob Ford has had a rough couple of months. He has recently confessed to using crack cocaine "in a drunken stupor", been caught on video making drunken death threats, and commented to reporters about his cunnilingus skills. He has also previously beencharged with drink-driving, and admitted on separate occasions tobuying illegal drugs and "smoking a lot of marijuana". Other allegationsfrom former staff members include physical assault, making racist and sexist remarks, and sexual harassment.

Needless to say, the man has made some questionable choices recently. While Mayor Ford has vehemently denied all accusations of drug or alcohol dependence, this pattern of poor decision-making is reflective of impairments in self-control and impulsivity that are often seen in problem drug and alcohol users.

What do your hands say about you?

When I tell people that I ‘do psychology’ I typically get one of three reactions. 1) People ask if I can read their thoughts. No, unless you’re a drunken guy in a bar, in which case, gross. 2) They begin to tell me about their current psychological troubles and parental issues, to which I listen sympathetically and then make it clear that I got into experimental psychology because I didn’t want to have to listen to people’s problems (sorry). Or 3) they ask me a very astute question about the brain that 9 times out of 10 I can’t answer. This last option is by far the most preferable and I’ve had several very interesting conversations come out of these interactions.

One such question I received recently was where does handedness come from in the brain? While initially a basic-seeming question, I quickly realized that I had no idea how to answer it without dipping into pop psychology tropes about right- and left-brained people that I definitely wanted to validate before I started trotting them out.

Is this a new tool to diagnose ADHD, or is it just another neuro-scam?

When I was in elementary school, there were two kids in my class who always got “special medicine” at lunchtime. I didn’t understand this at the time, as they never looked sick to me, so I couldn’t comprehend why they would need to take a pill. One day I got up the courage (as only an impertinent seven year-old can) to ask my friend why she needed to take medicine every day, but her answer just confused me even more. She said that without the pill she would get too energetic and be unable to concentrate in class. But this didn’t make sense, as I knew that I often got quite excited and would sometimes talk out of turn, but I certainly didn’t need to take any medicine for this!

Flash forward twelve years, and in college nearly all of my friends were regularly taking Adderall to help them study for exams, whether they were prescribed it or not.

Can we please not?

Can we please not blame mass killings on people’s brains? Can we not say that Adam Lanza committed the Newton, Connecticut massacre because he might have beenautistic? Can we not say that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the deceased Boston Marathon bombing suspect, might have committed the crime because he had boxing-related traumatic brain damage? Can we not say that his younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, aided in the bombings because he was a teenager and his brain hadn’t fully developed yet, and thus he was easily influenced by his radical older brother?