3×5: Culture, Neuroscience, and Psychiatry Weekly Roundup (June 26)


1. Thanks to Greg Downey I am reading Cecilia Hayes in August 2012 Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B theme issue on evolution of human cognition (including causal reasonining, imitation, language, metacognition, and theory of mind), which is described as a “much more gradual and incremental than previously assumed” with “crucial roles” for “cultural evolution, techno-social co-evolution and gene–culture co-evolution.”

The evolution of human cognition has not merely involved the addition of processes that supervise and control more primitive ways of thinking; it has accelerated an ancient trend towards increasingly powerful and coordinated “embodied” modes of thought [i.e., “thinking that is not fundamentally distinct from acting”].”

2. Also Greg’s latest (6/25/12) in Neuroanthropology: a really beautiful exploration of “Man-Sheep-Dog: Interspecies Social Skills,” which ties in with (1)  by exemplifying humans’ domain-general and (with experience) domain-specific cognitive-develomental mechanisms.

3. Daniel Lende of Neuroanthropology (6/24/12) takes a look at a new paper on the prisoner’s dilemma by William Press and Freeman Dyson in PNAS. For Daniel,

[t]he implications of this paper are fascinating. For biological evolution, it opens up new thinking about reproductive strategies and life history theory, as well as the direct impact on ideas about the evolution of cooperation.
For cultural evolution, it seems to provide some powerful insights into the evolution of inequality in human society. As the agriculture revolution and population growth led to the ability to monopolize social resources and create differential wealth, what happened with social class? Did human cooperation turn from fairness to enforcing the sort of unfair game that Press and Dyson outline?

4. Travis Saunders’s recap (“Is Obesity a Disease?”), exemplifies the problems of medicalization. On the one hand, medicalization can create stigma and diminish personhood; on the other, lack of medicalization can result in a dearth of qualified medical and emotional support for persons living with a health issue. For me the post was a useful reminder that most of the discussion about psychiatry in the media has centered on “bracket creep” of psychiatric diagnosis (over-medicalization) and not on the equally troubling lack of adequate systems of care for persons living with a chronic, severe psychiatric disorder (for UCLA pediatrician and science/policy researcher Neal Halfon [see below], “there is far too little education about the early signs of mental illness and what kinds of interventions can make a difference, and it can be difficult to find appropriate help for a troubled child or adolescent”).

5. This year’s brain series on Charlie Rose featured a segment on depression. Participants included UCLA’s Peter Whybrow, Eric Kandel (Columbia/Howard Hughes), Helen Mayberg (Emory) and Frederick Goodwin (George Washington University). The segment also included Andrew Solomon, who wrote a book about his experiences, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression ( 2001).

Like Elyn Sacks, Andrew Solomon is unusually eloquent about his illness experience in the segment and in his book and offers a lot of food for thought. Solomon describes his major depression as a gradual onset from within. Eventually, he came to live in a “slowed, paralyzed state” in which making lunch felt like the “stations of the cross.” (Even at the time, he recognized that this predicament was “ridiculous.”) What was particularly interesting was the way in which he described the experience in almost wholly physical terms as a loss of vital energy rather than, for example, a loss of happiness. The anxiety which followed the illness’s onset resembled “that moment when you slip and trip, before you actually hit the ground, that feeling of out-of-control terror” that lasts “day after day.” Overall, he felt that something external was bearing down on him and at the same time “something from inside had been removed.” What followed was a cyclical period of treatment (psychopharmaceuticals and psychotherapy), improvement, and relapse, which he experienced “over and over” until he recognized his illness as “diabetes-like,” organic and permanent, probably to the great relief of the panel. Yet Solomon gives us precisely what Clark Lawlor thinks biomedical psychiatry needs in his new book on the cultural history of depression (Oxford, 2012): “a more richly human and specific vision of this protean but very real illness.”


1. Joshua Buckholtz (Harvard) and Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg (Heidelberg) have published a major review in the latest issue of Neuron on
Psychopathology and the human connectome: Toward a transdiagnostic model of risk for mental illness. (See also my post on recent reviews on connectomics and psychopathology.)

The panoply of cognitive, affective, motivational, and social functions that underpin everyday human experience requires precisely choreographed patterns of interaction between networked brain regions. Perhaps not surprisingly, diverse forms of psychopathology are characterized by breakdowns in these interregional relationships. Here, we discuss how functional brain imaging has provided insights into the nature of brain dysconnectivity in mental illness. Synthesizing work to date, we propose that genetic and environmental risk factors impinge upon systems-level circuits for several core dimensions of cognition, producing transdiagnostic symptoms. We argue that risk-associated disruption of these circuits mediates susceptibility to broad domains of psychopathology rather than discrete disorders.

2.  Patric Hagmann [who coined the term “connectomics”], Patricia Grant, and Damien Fair’s recent paper in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience: “MR Connectomics: a conceptual framework for studying the developing brain.”

3. Update by Ed Yong in The Scientist on Alzheimer’s rogue protein story .

4. From Elizabeth Phelps’s human neuroimaging group at NYU in June 2012 Current Biology: “Nonconscious Fear is Quickly Acquired But Swiftly Forgotten,” suggesting a qualitatively different pathway for nonconscious emotional stimuli.

5. Latest from Drury et al. (Molecular Psychiatry) reports on: “Telomere length and early severe social deprivation: Linking early adversity and cellular aging.”

Psychiatry (with a special focus on implementing nonseparable systems of mental/physical health care)

1. Here is the full link to UCLA’s Neal Halfon’s 6/12/12/ op-ed piece in the LA Times (quoted above): “Mental Illness and Lessons from Kelly Thomas’ Last Cry for Help.”

The latest Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry includes three interesting articles (behind a paywall). The first is co-authored by Stephanie Drury (see the telomere paper above):

2. Recovering From Early Deprivation: Attachment Mediates Effects of Caregiving on Psychopathology
Lucy McGoron, Mary Margaret Gleason, Anna T. Smyke, Stacy S. Drury, Charles A. Nelson, Matthew C. Gregas, Nathan A. Fox, Charles H. Zeanah

3. Maternal Early Life Experiences and Parenting: The Mediating Role of Cortisol and Executive Function
Andrea Gonzalez, Jennifer M. Jenkins, Meir Steiner, Alison S. Fleming

4. Examining Autism Spectrum Disorders by Biomarkers: Example From the Oxytocin and Serotonin Systems
Elizabeth Hammock, Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, Zhongyu Yan, Travis M. Kerr, Marianna Morris, George M. Anderson, C. Sue Carter, Edwin H. Cook,Suma Jacob.

5. Finally, here are links to “Early Childhood Adversity, Toxic Stress, and the Role of the Pediatrician: Translating developmental Science into Lifelong Health” a policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics and “The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress” by Shonkoff et al. (who propose an “ecobiodevelopmental” framework),  Leeb et al. (CDC) respond :Early childhood adversity and toxic stress: A strategic opportunity for multi-disciplinary partnership between the pediatric and public health communities.

This entry was posted in challenges of interdisciplinary research by Constance A. Cummings. Bookmark the permalink.

About Constance A. Cummings

Constance A. Cummings, PhD, is Project Director of the non-profit Foundation for Psychocultural Research, which supports and advances interdisciplinary research and scholarship at the intersection of brain, mind, culture, and mental health and illness. She is co-editor (with Carol Worthman, Paul Plotsky, and Dan Schechter) of Formative Experiences: The Interaction of Caregiving, Culture, and Developmental Psychobiology (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and (with Laurence Kirmayer and Rob Lemelson) the forthcoming Re-Visioning Psychiatry: Cultural Phenomenology, Critical Neuroscience, and Global Mental Health (Cambridge, 2015). She received her doctorate in theoretical linguistics from New York University.

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