Saturday, May 12, 2018

Pressing pause

Hello all,

I'm taking a hiatus for the next few months to focus on the podcast Psychology in Mind with Gareth Stack, see below for episode one:

We've done a few episodes so far on creativity, heuristics and biases, ethics in psychology and memory (with the latter guest-starring Dr Richard Roche). Check it out!

And do have a look through the archive of this blog-I plan to return next year.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Restaurant review: The Greenhouse

"There is no such thing as a neutral context" Professor Charles Spence on eating

The lighting focuses on the tables, creating a sense of the table as a stage. The waitress lays out the napkins with a white glove. A song from "Moon Safari" quietly playing in the background gives a nostalgic retro-futurist Gallic soundtrack. 

Greenhouse, Dawson Street. Daniela has the four-course dinner menu; I go for the vegetarian equivalent. Being a veggie I am unqualified to comment on Daniela's menu; suffice to say she enjoyed it. Since the Greenhouse are known for working with a pretty serious sommelier, we go with the discovery wine selection. The amuse boches (pictured) include crispy seaweed and a pleasantly warm blue cheese.

First course: ravioli of comté, onion buillon. It's served in one of those huge bowls where the rim takes up most space, with the content in a central indent. The ravioli is pleasantly creamy, and a gang of tangy little mushrooms are swimming in the onion buillon. Wine: Riesling with a citrus acidity. Daniela's has a different Riesling that is bigger on acidity but also on sweetness.

Second course: roast cauliflower, hazelnut, truffle, sheep's curd. Having one medium sized piece of cauliflower as the centre of attention in a dish is ballsy. But it's great; caramelised dark brown on top with a milky, creamy stalk. Wine; Chardonnay; a hint of Belgian beer.

Third course: hand-rolled gnocchi, hen of the woods, parmesan, vin jaune. Form is important here-I always think of gnocchi as imperfect spheres, but here they are handrolled into fat snakes, and the hen of the woods cuts a different dash than the average mushroom. This dish follows the culinary adage that you should use as much salt as is just short of too salty.  Wine: pinot noir - a very subtle red that pulls things back compared to the Chardonnay.

Dessert: chocolate soufflé, vanilla ice cream. The late Paolo Tullio, who previously wrote a rave review of this place, had a memorable moment when he dipped his cutlery into a chocolate pudding on RTÉ's "The Restaurant" and exclaimed "gooey choccie!" while bouncing in his seat. The chocolate soufflé here too had a liquid centre (although the exterior was more crispy than a pudding). There was a saltiness to the dessert as well that was complemented by the ice cream. Wine: a lovely Madeira.

Espresso with petit fours-choux pastry with hazelnut cream and a chocolate passion fruit. I made the mistake of knocking the latter back in one go, giving a slightly overwhelming hit of the passion fruit.

The Greenhouse is definitely a treat for the senses. The dishes are all well presented, although none showboat excessively with the sauces etc. Daniela mentions a feeling of fullness that has as much to do with richness of the dishes as fullness of the stomach. The staff are attentive and friendly. It is quite expensive but worth it for a special occasion; regardless of why you go, once you're inside you definitely won't feel that you're approaching the food in a neutral context. 

Related posts:
TV review: Chef's Table

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Conference review: "Research and Healthcare Responses to the Challenge of Brain Conditions in Ireland"

With Brain Awareness Week underway, the timing was ripe for this week’s joint conference of the Neurological Alliance of Ireland and the Irish Brain Council: Research and Healthcare Responses to the Challenge of Brain Conditions in Ireland. It was a half-day event, packing a lot of interesting talks into a slim timeline.

Mark Ferguson of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) opened the day with a discussion of SFI’s past and future, underlining SFI’s extensive collaboration with industry. He also highlighted plans to create a more targeted funding mechanism for PhD students; previously, although a lot of PhD students have been hired via SFI funding, this has been a lot more “top-down”, i.e. coming from Professors with the more major research grants SFI is known for.

Speaking of which, David Henshall’s talk on FutureNeuro struck me as a real template on how to get a large tranch of funding from SFI, but more importantly it represents an ambitious research program targeting motor neuron disease and epilepsy. The project aims to further knowledge in both diagnosis and treatment for these disorders; for example, how molecular therapies (which tend to be relatively bulky) can cross the blood-brain-barrier. The work of FutureNeuro also covers the increasing electronic storage of health records, with a view to creating greater use of genetic information as this becomes recorded in a greater number of patients.

The Promethean ambition of Henshall’s work was matched that of Ian Robertson, who discussed the work of the Global Brain Health Institute in training research fellows, identifying risk factors for the development of dementia and initiatives to prevent/offset the development of dementia. He spoke about cognitive reserve (a favourite topic of Robertson’s), as well as how dopaminergic function in striatal regions may underlie what is ostensibly more cortically-based decline in cognitive performance in older adults. In closing, Robertson paid emotional tribute to Chuck Feeney, highlighting how Atlantic Philanthropies (which recently came to a close) is to thank for the Global Brain Health Institute.

Cora O’Neill highlighted her work at the Cork Neuroscience Centre at University College Cork, linking the brain-gut-microbiome axis to a molecule associated with Parkinson’s disease (alpha synuclein). She highlighted the broader area of changes in the microbiome with age, and particularly between residential, nursing home care and older adults living in the community. O’Neill also gave generous coverage to work by John Cryan and Ted Dinan at UCC, including a mention of the dementia caregiver study I have worked on with Gerard Clarke.

At coffee/tea it was great to see a couple of posters looking at caregivers for people with other serious neurological problems, including one on carers for people in a persistent vegetative state as well as a poster on acquired brain injury in general.

The second session of opened with a more frontline clinical perspective from Timothy Lynch, who spoke about neurology services in Ireland. Although things are improving in terms of waiting lists, there is a need for greater multidisciplinary teamwork in Ireland; there is a serious lack of clinical neuropsychologists, and even if all the necessary funding to hire them were there, there still wouldn’t be enough suitably qualified people to fill the posts.  

The meeting closed with by a representative of Fred Destrebecq, Executive Director of the European Brain Council, highlighting the health economics of brain diseases and mental disorder, which is somewhere in the order of €800 billion for Europe. He also drew attention to the Value of Treatment white paper, which outlines unmet need in early diagnosis and treatment of mental/neurological disorder in Europe.

The meeting as a whole indicated the scale of health challenges facing our society. It demonstrated the ambition of those researching this most complex area, and the determination of those treating the people these issues affect.

Related posts

Why not check out the "Psychology in Mind" podcast with Gareth Stack:

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The biology of depression treatment: an understudied factor

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid (i.e. an amino acid that comes from one's diet). It is of interest for the subject of depression, as it is used by the body to produce serotonin, a target for many of the "first-line" anti-depressants that are widely prescribed (a key type of antidepressant being selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). However, most of the tryptophan we consume is not converted in serotonin, but is rather broken down along the kynurenine pathway. A number of the metabolites formed along this pathway may have neuroprotective or neurotoxic effects, and there is evidence that they may be altered in patients with major depression, which may in turn be associated with alterations in relevant brain regions.

A recent article from work we did at UCC examined a number of these metabolites in blood samples from patients with prolonged major depression. We examined blood samples taken before ketamine treatment and at repeated times after three ketamine injections, spaced one week apart. (Although the anti-depressant effects of ketamine are very rapid, they also fade after a week or so, and so repeated injections are sometimes given for a number of weeks). We found that kynurenic acid, which is thought to be neuroprotective, was reduced in patients with major depression compared to healthy controls. However, although the antidepressant effects were soon evident in most of these patients (in terms of their depressive thoughts and feelings), ketamine did not lead to clear changes in kynurenine pathway metabolites.

Our results seem to suggest that depressive symptoms may be improved by ketamine, even in the absence of kynurenine pathway change. Perhaps other biological factors are more important, such as neurotrophins (proteins that are crucial for neuronal growth and development). Nor should we ignore the potential effects of ketamine on the psyche; the disassociative effects of ketamine may create a psychological "distance from the self", not unlike the effects of mindfulness meditation. Nonetheless, the observed differences in kynurenic acid in patients with depression is indicative of how depression is associated with changes in tryptophan metabolism beyond serotonin.

New research is being published regularly in this area, including in leading glamour journals, looking at more mechanistic preclincial work as well as research in patients. We will hopefully gain more understanding in the coming years into how this drug works. Such an understanding may help to develop more targeted drugs in future.

Allen, A. P., Naughton, M., Dowling, J., Walsh, A., O'Shea, R., Shorten, G., ... & Dinan, T. G. (2018). Kynurenine pathway metabolism and neurobiology of treatment-resistant depression: Comparison of multiple ketamine infusions and electroconvulsive therapy. Journal of Psychiatric Research. doi:

Related posts
Depression treatment: ketamine
I felt a funeral, in my brain

Or why not check out the "Psychology in Mind" podcast with Gareth Stack:

Saturday, February 3, 2018

TV review: "Chef's Table"

This is my first TV review on this blog, and it might seem odd picking a show about fine dining as opposed to some psychologist's tale. However, as each episode of "Chef's Table" profiles an individual chef in depth, a strong sense of autobiography comes through. Many of the protagonists describe episodes they recall from their lives that have had very clear influences on specific dishes. One chef recalls a frightening incident of nearly drowning as acting as an inspiration for a dish. 

Although there is no voiceover, and despite the fact that the show has multiple directors, the sense of editorial voice is strong in this show. The typical episode climaxes with a montage of sweeping, cinematic shots of signature dishes. One suspects that there was a fairly structured set of questions posed to each chef, who lay out how their career (and indeed childhood and adolescence) has played out, leading up to the level of success that has garnered the interest of the program's producers. It is interesting to note the diversity of life experience of the various chefs; I cannot discern any clear "type" in terms of personality. The third series opens with a Buddhist nun who pursued the holy life from an early age, while a later episode concerns a Berlin chef who spent much of his youth fighting in gangs. 

Even more strong than the autobiographical slant is the sense of place. The program travels the globe, from San Fran to Peru to Australia to Thailand. At each stop, nearly all the chefs discuss how their cooking acts as an ambassador for the region they come from. Many seem to not only want to source local produce, but to use their dishes to communicate something of their region's character. If novelists sometimes feel misunderstood, I can only imagine what it must be like to attempt to communicate through the medium of a menu. (Having said that, a French chef includes poems about dishes on her menu). Outlets such as "Chef's Table" are no doubt a great forum to chefs who wish to put a message across through their cooking. 

Although there may not be a standard personality type amongst these chefs, what they nearly all have in common is a hectic work schedule. The autobiographical approach is not surprising when the lines between work and life outside of work are so blurred. The stresses of the job are quite frequently alluded to, but unlike many more "reality TV" style shows , we are generally spared the spectacle of meltdowns or shouting matches (a la Gordon "it's faaacking RAW!" Ramsay). In a program with a reasonably diverse panel of chefs, it is perhaps also refreshing to note that it is a male chef who alludes most directly to finding a balance between work and family life-an issue that has also been discussed in the field of science and research. 

Whether you're into cooking or not, it's difficult not to come away from an episode feeling pumped up about trying to pursue your passion in life. Easier said than done though; perhaps a few more shots of kitchen meltdowns could temper this!

Related posts 

Why not check out the "Psychology in Mind" podcast with me and the talented Gareth Stack:

Sunday, January 21, 2018

I'm thinking of it right now. But will I remember later?

My google calendar overflows with tasks that I don't trust myself to remember. Despite the indefinite amount of information we seem to be able to hold in our long-term memory "store", for most of us it is all too easy to forget the epic three or even (dun dun dun) four things we mean to do between when we get in from work and when we go to bed.

This is prospective memory; remembering to do something that you (previously) decided you were going to do.

Of course, in everyday life I rarely have to remember highly important appointment etc. with "just" my mind, as I will use reminders. Interestingly, the Rivermead Behavioural Memory Test allows one to use written notes to help remember to do something. This seems like a nice psychometric acknowledgement of the extended mind (i.e. we do not purely rely on our brains, but use tools and symbols as add-ons for cognition). However, where one is employing this add-ons, it is likely that one is using one's brain in a different manner to when the same brain is running "naked".

It may nonetheless be difficult to identify incidents in everyday life where someone is not using some external cue to jog memory, whether consciously or otherwise.  Consider how the time of day, one's location or the content of conversation during a meeting might act as a reminder to do something, even if such cues have not be set up by you in advance to act as reminders. In this vein, Researchers in this area distinguish between time-based prospective memory (remembering to do something at a particular time) and episode-based prospective memory (remembering to do something once some other event occurs).

An interesting research question concerns depression. In addition to the broader evidence base for a negative impact of depression on cognition, depression has been shown by a meta-analysis to be associated with poorer prospective memory (both time-based and episode-based). The authors suggest this may relate to a dysfunction of neural circuits responsible for prospective memory in people with depression, such as connections between the amygdala (associated with emotion) and the anterior cingulate cortex (which is associated with executive function, a suite of cognitive functions that are likely to be integral to prospective memory and its enactment).

A word of warning: methods of cognitive assessment for probing this form of memory have to be appraised carefully.In much of the research in this area one is asked (a) to remember to complete a certain task later on, (b) to do a distracting task for a while, (c) do what you are asked to do in part a. As with much research into cognitive psychology, in order to get more robust data researchers will often have a few test trials. However, a problem with this is that it may only be the first test trial that is really about prospective memory-the subsequent trials may be more related to more short-term memory (because you're now repeating to yourself over and over not to forget again to carry out the instruction mentioned in part a.)

Related posts:
Autobiographical memory and thinking about the future
Where does the mind begin and end?`

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Book review: "Free Will" by Sam Harris

There is no question that our attribution of agency can be gravely in error. It is my contention that it always is. (p. 25)

"Free will" is a very short book that you could skim through in about the same time it takes to watch this talk from Harris on the subject of free will. It is also very clearly written. Harris argues that free will, at least as most people understand it, simply does not exist; we are not free agents who are in control of our thoughts or actions.

According to his taped confession, Komisarjevsky stood over the sleeping man for some minutes, hesitating, before striking him in the head with a baseball bat. He claimed that the victim's screams then triggered something within him, and he bludgeoned Petit with all his strength until he fell silent. (p. 2)

The opening paragraph is followed by an account of a brutal multiple murder (which took place over a number of hours). Harris segues shortly thereafter into discussion of free will and daily choices of what to eat and drink. The juxtaposition (albeit indirect) may seem tasteless. More pressing is that it really does miss a distinction between decisions to which we do not devote much thought and decisions to which we do. Harris does highlight how some actions may involve a greater degree of conscious deliberation. However, he also points out that those factors that enter into conscious deliberation do so via unconscious mechanisms. Nonetheless, I feel he goes too far in suggesting we do not have free will simply because we cannot control thoughts that come into our conscious awareness-if we have a conscious "veto" over our decisions, as some models of reasoning suggest, then even though we may not control where our thoughts initially come from, we may at least exercise some control over our behaviour.

Harris takes in some fascinating neuroscience research in this area. He highlights a famous experiment demonstrating that in motor regions of the brain (which are associated with the initiation of behaviour) neural activity occurs prior to conscious awareness of the intention to act. However, this phenomenon occurs over the course of a few seconds or less, and is likely of limited influence when it comes to deliberating over a choice carefully, where options A and B might be evaluated repeatedly on several attributes before any overt behaviour is produced by the person making the decision.

Harris outlines a deterministic view of human thought and action, which he feels is incompatible with the idea of free will. Daniel Dennett (who Harris indicates is both a friend as well as an opponent on this particular issue) has defended the idea that determinism may be compatible with at least a modest version of free will. We may accept a deterministic stance whereby someone could only have done x, and not y, given all the factors in their life up to that point, PLUS all the details of their environment. Nonetheless, Dennett argues, if we take the environment (which exists outside of the person's self, and for which they are generally not really responsible for), if the person may have acted differently had some small aspect of the environment been different, then it probably is fair to say that the person has some degree of free will.

The book concludes with thoughts on the moral/ethical implications of free will being simply an illusion. Dennett has weighed in on this issue as well, suggesting that the idea that free will doesn't really exist appears to make people act in a less ethical fashion (because, after all, "how could they do otherwise"?), and indeed both Dennett and Harris cite interesting research suggesting that encouraging a view that free will does exist encourages research participants to behave in a more ethical fashion than if they are encouraged not to believe in free will. Harris does not offer any easy answers to this issue, although he does posit that moral responsibility "overall complexion of one's mind" rather than "the metaphysics of cause and effect". (At this point, I feel he might be alluding implicitly to the point I made above about weighing up options consciously, although he seems to stop short of saying as much).

On the subject of ethics, Harris further suggests that the legal system (e.g. in how it deals with violent offenders) could shift from less of a focus on punishment to a greater focus on safety and rehabilitation. (Such a shift in focus could sometimes lead to longer prison sentences for violent offenders, if they have served a sentence that is considered fair in terms of punishment, but the criminal nonetheless maintains a high risk of committing a similar crime outside of prison).

In conclusion, if you have always had a simple faith that you have more-or-less complete free will, this book will certainly make you think twice about whether this is the case. Although I feel it is not a complete refutation of free will, it is likely to make most readers revise their view of what free will really is. leaving them with a more modest estimate over the extent to which they (and others) are in control.

Related posts:
Book review: "Intuition Pumps" by Daniel Dennett
The autocerebroscope