Emotionless brain research that didn’t deal with human reality

Are the tasks you do at work and home never influenced by emotional content or contexts?

Does your ability to focus on a task always have nothing to do with your emotional state?

The researchers who designed this 2015 Boston human study acted as if both of your answers to the above questions were “Yes” by stripping out any emotional content from their experiments. As a result, the study which purported to:

“Have the potential to provide additional insights into how inhibitory control may break down in a wide variety of individuals with neurological or psychiatric difficulties”

couldn’t achieve anything near this goal.

This study included fMRI scans of the subjects’ entire brains. Limbic system areas were in 3 of the 5 modules, and lower brain areas were in one.

Functional MRI signals depend on the changes in blood flow that follow changes in brain activity. Given this study’s goal, did it make sense for the researchers to design experiments that didn’t actively engage the scanned areas of the subjects’ brains?

It wasn’t all that difficult to include emotional content that could potentially contribute to the purported goal. This 1996 summary study described studies that developed varieties of emotional content with the same test type (Stroop) used in the current study. Presumably these approaches had made progress since 1996 incorporating emotional content in Stroop tests given to normal people, who were the subjects of this study.

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/32/10020.full “Flexible brain network reconfiguration supporting inhibitory control”

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Further limits on using monkeys to understand human brains

This 2015 Columbia human/macaque study found:

“Fundamental differences in the attention-related brain areas in the two species, including the complete absence, in monkeys, of a ventral-attention network present in humans.

We did not find functional evidence of a temporoparietal junction in macaques.

The two species last shared a common ancestor 25 million years ago, and in the intervening time the brain areas underlying cognition have likely evolved along different paths.

The results of this study indicate that macaque data should be applied to human models of cognition cautiously, and demonstrate how evolution may shape cortical networks.”

The main point of this study was the same as noted in Limits of dMRI brain studies, which advised – instead of performing studies on monkeys to understand humans:

“Assess human anatomical connections directly and comprehensively.”

We can look forward to times when using macaques in studies such as:

is no longer acceptable.

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/30/9454.full “Functional evolution of new and expanded attention networks in humans”

Genetic statistics don’t necessarily predict the effects of an individual’s genes

I curated this 2015 Howard Hughes Medical Institute rodent study of DNA methylation because of the reason driving the researchers’ efforts:

“Epigenomic analyses are limited by averaging of population-wide dynamics and do not inform behavior of single cells.

We observe dynamics at the single-cell level not predicted by epigenomic analysis.”

This rationale was also the driving force behind the Is what’s true for a population what’s true for an individual? study and its companion Changing an individual’s future behavior even before they’re born. The methodology of genome-wide association studies (GWAS) usually:

“Focuses on the average effect of alternative alleles averaged in a population.”

What this methodology often missed was:

“When phenotypic variation results from alleles that modify phenotypic variance rather than the mean, this link between genotype and phenotype will not be detected.”

Population-wide genetic statistics don’t necessarily inform us about the activities and attributes of an individual’s genes, even down at the single-cell level.

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/31/E4216.full “The Xist RNA-PRC2 complex at 20-nm resolution reveals a low Xist stoichiometry and suggests a hit-and-run mechanism in mouse cells”

How brain neurons remain stable when constantly stimulated

This 2015 UK rodent study provided details of how neurons in the hippocampus respond to stimuli. The researchers found that hippocampal neurons:

“Remain electrically stable when confronted with chronic increases in neuronal activity.”

Changes in electrical potential changed the initial segment of the neuron’s axon.

Synapses formed along the segment, and stayed in place while this highly-plastic segment moved along the axon. The location mismatch:

“Allows the GABAergic [producing gamma-Aminobutyric acid, an inhibitory neurochemical] synapses to strongly oppose action potential generation, and thus downregulate pyramidal cell excitability.”

The researchers also used the two antioxidants endogenous to humans, superoxide dismutase and glutathione, to supplement the culture medium.

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/31/9757.full “Activity-dependent mismatch between axo-axonic synapses and the axon initial segment controls neuronal output”

Are a child’s genes the causes for their anxiety?

This 2015 Wisconsin macaque study was another attempt to justify the school’s continuing captivity of thousands of monkeys. The researchers performed a study that, if its experimental design was truly informative for helping humans, could have been done with humans.

A problem I saw in the news coverage was that the finding of:

“35 percent of variation in anxiety-like tendencies is explained by family history”

was attributed to genetics, with headlines such as “Anxious Brains Are Inherited, Study Finds.” The lead researcher encouraged this misinterpretation with statements such as:

“Over-activity of these three brain regions are inherited brain alterations that are directly linked to the later life risk to develop anxiety and depression.”

However, the researchers produced this finding by running numbers on family trees, not by studying genetic samples to assess the contributions of genetic and epigenetic factors. The study’s “family history” correlation was therefore different than finding an inherited genetic causation that wasn’t influenced by the subjects’ caged environments.

The study found:

“Metabolism within a tripartite prefrontal-limbic-midbrain circuit mediates some of the inborn risk for developing anxiety and depression.

The brain circuit that was genetically correlated with individual differences in early-life anxiety involved three survival-related brain regions. These regions were located in the brain stem, the most primitive part of the brain; the amygdala, the limbic brain fear center; and the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for higher-level reasoning and is fully developed only in humans and their primate cousins.”


The 592 subjects were the human-equivalent ages of 3 to 12 years old. Primate brainstems and limbic systems are fully developed before these ages.

The researchers thus skipped over potential evidence for the important contributions of epigenetic factors to “the later life risk to develop anxiety and depression” that change the studied brain areas during womb-life, infancy, and early childhood. Studies such as:

show, for example, that:

  • A developing fetus adapts to being constantly stressed by an anxious mother.
  • When these adaptations persist after birth, they may present as physiological and behavioral maladaptations of the infant and young child to a non-stressful environment.
  • Later in life, these enduring changes may be among the causes of symptoms

such as the anxious overreactions this study found.

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/29/9118.full “Intergenerational neural mediators of early-life anxious temperament”

Over 500 million people affected but no news coverage

Sometimes I wonder how research becomes newsworthy. I couldn’t find any news coverage of this 2015 Chinese rodent study which provided details of the effects of a gene for which:

“Over 500 million people worldwide carry a specific polymorphism.

Is a risk factor for liver cancer.”

1 out of every 15 people alive today has this condition, and can expect:

“Increased sensitivity to acute or chronic alcohol-induced toxicity

Higher risk for gastrointestinal cancers

Enzyme deficiency in the liver, leading to inefficient detoxification of aldehydes and accumulation of cancer-causing mutations.”

Was the lack of news coverage because 40% of East Asians are affected? Would this study become newsworthy if 40% of some other group was affected?

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/29/9088.full “ALDH2(E487K) mutation increases protein turnover and promotes murine hepatocarcinogenesis”

Perpetuating the meme that rodent PTSD experiments necessarily apply to humans

This 2015 Texas A&M rodent study found:

“Propranolol administration dampened the stress-induced impairment in extinction observed when extinction training is delivered shortly after fear conditioning.”

The researchers were way off base in extrapolating this study to humans:

“Propranolol may be a helpful adjunct to behavioral therapy for PTSD, particularly in patients who have recently experienced trauma.”

Would National Institutes of Health Grant R01MH065961 money have been available without perpetuating the meme that rodent PTSD experiments necessarily apply to humans? Or are a priori findings necessary in order to get research funded?

In rodent studies such as this one, the origins of both the disease and the “cure” are all exerted externally. But humans aren’t lab rats. We can perform effective therapy that doesn’t involve some outside action being done to us.

Studies such as Fear extinction is the learned inhibition of retrieval of previously acquired responses make clear that extinction is equivalent to suppression. “Behavioral therapy for PTSD” that suppresses symptoms can’t be a “cure” for humans since the original causes for the symptoms aren’t treated.

Even if this study’s recommendation to administer a drug applied to humans, neither drugs nor “behavioral therapy for PTSD” address the underlying causes.

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/28/E3729.full “Noradrenergic blockade stabilizes prefrontal activity and enables fear extinction under stress”