Category Archives: Neuroscience

Spring books preview: health & medicine

Seasonal catalog cover spring 2016We’re excited about the books we’ll be publishing this spring—and we’re pleased to start off the new year with a series of posts that highlight our forthcoming titles. Be sure to check out the online edition of JHUP’s entire Spring 2016 catalog, and remember that promo code “HDPD” gets you a 30% discount on all pre-publication orders. Today we feature spring books on health and medicine; click on the title to read more about the book or to place an order:

dawes150 Years of ObamaCare
Daniel E. Dawes
foreword by David Satcher, 16th US Surgeon General

Guinan_jkt.inddAdventures of a Female Medical Detective
In Pursuit of Smallpox and AIDS
Mary Guinan, PhD, MD
with Anne D. Mather

grantWhy Can’t I Stop?
Reclaiming Your Life from a Behavioral Addiction
Jon E. Grant, JD, MD, MPH, Brian L. Odlaug, PhD, MPH, and Samuel R. Chamberlain, MD, PhD

goldenOvercoming Destructive Anger
Strategies That Work
Bernard Golden, PhD

trainorCalming Your Anxious Child
Words to Say and Things to Do
Kathleen Trainor, PsyD

noonanWhen Someone You Know Has Depression
Words to Say and Things to Do
Susan J. Noonan, MD, MPH
foreword by Timothy J. Petersen, PhD, Jonathan E. Alpert, MD, PhD, and Andrew A. Nierenberg, MD

grimesSeductive Delusions
How Everyday People Catch STIs
second edition
Jill Grimes, MD

trimbleThe Intentional Brain
Motion, Emotion, and the Development of Modern Neuropsychiatry
Michael R. Trimble, MD

slavney16Psychiatric Polarities
Methodology and Practice
Phillip R. Slavney, M.D., and Paul R. McHugh, M.D.

Use discount code “HDPD” to receive a 30% discount on pre-publication orders for JHUP’s spring 2016 titles.
To order, click on the book titles above or call 800-537-5487.

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Filed under Consumer Health, Health and Medicine, Neuroscience, Psychiatry and Psychology, Public Health, Publishing News

Let’s build a better brain

Guest post by E. Paul Zehr

Or should we first see if we can build any kind of brain at all? On the surface it seems like an almost trivial exercise. All you need to do is figure out how the brain functions, then run some computer simulations, use the outcomes of the simulations to create fully detailed models, test and retest the models with machine learning algorithms over many, many iterations, and then make a brain based on the successful outcomes.

So, pretty simple, then? There are some complications that make this idea, to borrow a bit of physics/engineering/mathematics jargon, a “non-trivial” problem. The main thing I want to talk about has to do with scope and size.

The cool thing about most of the body is that you can tell a lot about physiology (how it works) from the anatomy (how it looks). Function comes from form. In your cardiovascular system you’ve got a big muscular pump in the form of the heart that receives and pushes blood all around the body. Taking a good look at the heart along with all the piping coming in and out, allows a reasonable estimate of what it does and how blood flows in the body.

A real human brain contains about 100 billion neurons (the cells of the nervous system). Those 100 billion neurons might have on average 5000 connections from other neurons making synaptic connections with it. That means about 100 trillion connections. A pretty big number. Far bigger than the  number of galaxies in the universe (estimated to be between 200 to 500 billion). Overall this is a huge number of connections to model.

This is part of what allows the nervous system to present with a much broader scope. Not because the anatomy is impenetrable or that much more complicated within different areas of the brain. It is certainly complex, but the general features of the connections from those 100 billion neurons form into tracts and bands of connections within the brain that can be reasonably identified (mostly).

The real non-trivial problem comes from the fact that the function—the behavior—of the brain cannot be directly predicted from anatomy. Enter those 100 trillion connections. The key thing is that the network activity in the brain emerges from the activity of whatever synaptic connections are active at any given time. It is a constantly shifting landscape of network activity.

A simple approximation is to imagine sitting in a boat that is rising and falling on the swells of the Atlantic ocean. Boats are all around you and you can see them rising and falling such that at any given moment you see different boats. Those boats all represent active connections between neurons that are expressed when you can see them and silenced when you cannot. To complete the metaphor, multiply by many trillions.

This is what makes building a brain such a daunting task. It’s not so much building something with brain-like connections, but rather a brain that functions like a real brain.

This is what makes the “Human Brain Project” such an interesting idea. This group is made up of institutions in Germany, the UK, France, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, Israel, Austria and Belgium and is one of the finalists for a new EU program to create a “simulation of the human brain – an achievement that promises to revolutionize not only neuroscience, medicine and the social sciences – but also information technology and robotics”.

The focus of this project, clearly named to draw on the cachet of the first biological megaproject in the Human Genome Project, aims to bring together data and databases on brain study, figure out organizational principles and then build models with as much detail as possible.

It’s important to realize that the scope and extent of this project has never been attempted before. That doesn’t mean it will be successful—lots of thing never attempted before fail when somebody tries it out. What it does mean is there’s a reason to be cautiously optimistic that some major new advances in our understanding of how we can understand may be just around the corner.

This brings me to close with one of my favourite neuroscience quotes. The South African zoologist Lyall Watson (1939-2008) wrote: “If the brain were so simple we could easily understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.” But we are going to give it our best shot. I look forward with great anticipation to the undiscovered country that will be revealed by this endeavour.

E. Paul Zehr is the director of the Centre for Biomedical Research at the University of Victoria, where he is also a professor of neuroscience and kinesiology. He is the author of  Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine and Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero. This blog post was originally published on the website of graphic novelist Warren Ellis.

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Filed under General Science, Health and Medicine, Neuroscience

Out of Iraq

Guest post by Robert N. McLay, M.D., Ph.D.

Welcome back, vets . . . I hope that you really make it home, not just physically, but that you settle into all the happiness and peace that you have earned.

So as many of you know, the war ended on a Thursday. This was a little surreal because even though I work on a military base and am surrounded by Iraq War veterans, I could pretty much have missed it. On the 15th of December, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta presided over a flag-lowering ceremony in Baghdad that formally marked the end of U.S. military activities in Iraq.

The Monday after the ceremony, I went looking for the video of it online, but by then, news of the death of Kim Jong Il and the release of a trailer for The Dark Knight Rises had already filled the top spots on Google News. The Dark Knight Rises looks awesome, by the way. The events in Baghdad probably made poor television.

I did find a link to it eventually, even if I had to reload three times and sit through an annoying commercial about banking to see it. For that reason, I’ll skip embedding the link here. Panetta’s speech was given on a crudely constructed plywood stage, and his speech was simple, saying what needed to be said but little more. “The cost was high.”

The troops watching were dressed in fatigues–even General Austin, who probably could have cut a fine figure decked out in his dress uniform with all the medals from this very long war. It was as all things in Iraq have been for some time now: dusty, uncomfortable, and with a hint of danger lurking, but no fireworks big enough to catch the world’s attention. The celebration in Times Square at the end of World War II, it was not.

I’m not really upset that the U.S. withdrawal was met with so little fanfare. Much better that it be a boring series of speeches than film of helicopters evacuating embassies or news of an atomic bomb. I’m happy to put it behind me. But 4,474 service members are sure never to be so lucky. Countless others came home, but we don’t really know what their future will be. As a psychiatrist, I guess it gives me job security. I could easily spend my whole career finding these invisibly wounded men and women and doing what we can for them. I hope I’m out of this work earlier than I expect, but I’m not holding my breath.

I guess we may have heard this before, with “Mission Accomplished” and “the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq.” The news, though, missed Army Specialist David Hickman, who was last on that list of 4,474.  I really hope that the news means something this time.

Welcome back, vets. Take a break. Thank you for saving my sorry ass while I was over there, and for going again so that I and others didn’t have to. I hope that you really make it home, not just physically, but that you settle into all the happiness and peace that you have earned.

And let’s all pray that there is a similar, boring, and difficult-to-find news story about Afghanistan sometime soon.


Robert N. McLay, M.D., Ph.D., is a psychiatrist and research director with the Naval Medical Center San Diego. He came on active duty in the United States Navy in 2001 and shortly after the start of the war in Afghanistan became primary investigator on two Navy programs involving virtual reality treatment for PTSD. His book, At War with PTSD: Battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with Virtual Reality, will be available from JHU Press in April 2011.

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Filed under Iraq, Middle East, Military, Neuroscience, Psychiatry and Psychology, War and Conflict