Trendy Psychiatric Research: A need to sanitise hubris and bad faith?

An article in the Times by Dorothy Bishop explores some of the problems in biomedical research which arise from the obsession with high-impact journals and expensive grants.

monopoly boardHer critique is especially apt in the case of the physical basis of mental illness, in which researchers seeking fame and fortune must master the storytelling arts of simplicity, metaphor and metonymy. Those seeking H-impact & lucre must stay “on message” and above all, never stray into the chaos of imperfect methods and noisy data.

Bishop concludes with a warning, that the relentless focus on publishing in prestigious journals encourages…

1. Over-claiming the significance of research findings.

2. Leaving important, but contradictory results unpublished.

Hubris is the orientation of the former, bad faith the foundation of the latter.

“…what changes everything is the fact that in bad faith it is from myself that I am hiding the truth“.

Modafinil to boost academic performance: Effective, Addictive, Cheating?

Originally marketed as a wake-promoting agent, modafinil is a prescription drug that is said to boost cognition in healthy subjects. As such it’s use has spread amongst college students cramming for dreaded examinations. Anecdotal reports are of enhanced focus, clarity of thought and intellectual stamina; attractive properties for those hoping to secure a competitive edge for themselves.

But how do the pro-cognitive effects of modafinil stack up in proper scientific studies? Is modafinil addictive? And what ethical stance should be taken on the use of performance-enhancing agents in academic life?

Does modafinil enhance cognitive performance?

The first laboratory-based study of modafinil (single dose 100 or 200mg) in 2003 showed that it had clear pro-cognitive properties. Since then a further six studies have been in agreement, with performance enhancements in the domains of working memory, cognitive flexibility and planning.

A recent and elegant study carried out in Cambridge involving 64 healthy participants between the ages of 19-36 is illustrative [Muller et al 2012]. Participants were randomly allocated to receive modafinil (200mg) or placebo under experimental conditions, two hours ahead of a cognitive challenge. In addition to the usual measures of memory performance, task enjoyment was rated.

Performance in planning/problem solving under modafinil v placebo

The modafinil group achieved success with fewer choices in a task requiring cognitive planning. Performance enhancement was most apparent at the highest level of difficulty. Error bars are SEM.
From: Muller et al Neuropharmacology 64 (2013) 490-495.

The main findings were that the modafinil group out-performed the placebo group on tests of working memory, planning and pattern recognition memory. These improvements were more prominent as the cognitive tasks became more difficult.

And for the first time, it was shown that modafinil boosted enjoyment during the testing.

The authors postulated that the enjoyment could have arisen from the sense of satisfaction at task mastery or instead be the result of heightened motivation as a direct effect of the drug – surely now a topic for further study.

Is modafinil addictive?

The behavioural pharmacology of modafinil appears to stem from inhibition of the dopamine re-uptake transporter (DAT), akin to the mechanism of the classic [and addictive] stimulants, cocaine and amphetamine. However modafinil is a relatively weak inhibitor of DAT.

raclopride PET following modafinil

PET images of the human brain showing that compared to placebo, modafinil reduces raclopride binding in the striatum. The reduction in raclopride binding is indicative of dopamine release. Volkow et al (2009) JAMA 2009 301:1148-54

There are a number of behavioural differences between modafinil and the classical stimulants. Perhaps most notably, modafinil has a very low propensity for abuse (Wisor 2013). Indeed there was some hope that modafinil might actually constitute a treatment for cocaine/amphetamine addiction, but the findings to date in clinical trials have been disappointing.

Does the use of modafinil for exam revision constitute cheating?

Modafinil certainly confers a cognitive advantage, at least in the short term. And the downside in terms of addiction appears to be negligible, despite the pharmacological similarities of modafinil to ‘hard drugs’ such as cocaine and amphetamine.

The differences in cognitve performance under modafinil may be slight, and only apparent as the demands of the task increase. But isn’t this similar to the highest levels of sport, in which performance enhancing substances confer a critical edge as the competition reaches a climax.

The ethics of ‘smart drugs’ is complex [unlike the pharmacological questions above, which in contrast, can be settled by experiment, as well as reason]. One could argue that personal choice is all that matters. Surely the individual student should make their own judgement on whether to use, or abstain from, cognitive enhancers?  But is it only a personal matter? A decision to use smart drugs has a potential impact on the competition, the rest of the field. Is the use of modafinil, and the like, nothing other than cheating?

Psychosis Research. Where have we been & where are we going?

phenotype and genotype

The Institute of Psychiatry at The Maudsley is the largest centre for psychiatric research in Europe. Recently a group of leading researchers were tasked with summarising an area of research as it pertains to psychosis and psychopharmacology.

The outcome was a series of short lectures, delivered to a lively audience of psychiatrists, mental health workers and psychologists at The Maudsley. The lecture slides and audio are now available below and constitute a unique training resource for those who treat patients.

1. Sir Robin Murray,
Psychosis research: Deconstructing the dogma
2. David Taylor,
Current Psychopharmacology: Facts & Fiction
3. Oliver Howes,
How can we Treat psychosis better?
4. Marta DiForti,
An idiot's guide to psychiatric genetics
5. Sameer Jauhar,
Ten psychosis papers to read before you die!
6. Paul Morrison,
Future antipsychotics


Neurophysiology can free psychiatry from it’s dependence on metaphor.

el Greco

For psychiatry to progress, it can take as it's starting point the most up to date thinking on how the nervous system operates. This necessitates an appreciation of how neurons communicate with each other, how circuits emerge and how CNS tissue is sculpted in the very act of processing information. A short synopsis of some of the main themes in contemporary neurophysiology is presented here. First we shall consider the two main theories of how information is processed in the here-and-now. Then we shall look briefly at spike-timing dependent plasticity, the latest and arguably the most elegant form of plasticity within the brain, which synthesises many strands.

Information Processing

Special gnostic cells

There are two major theoretical accounts of how neural tissue “performs its computations”. The first account postulates the existence of ‘special cells’ at the top of a processing hierarchy. These cells are less ‘concerned’ by the raw ‘building blocks’ of sensory experience – orientation, brightness, colour, pitch etc. Instead, they respond (‘fire’) to whole objects (Gestalts), regardless of perspective, illumination and all the other idiosyncrasies that make up a perceptual scene. The metaphor of the ‘grandmother cell’ captures the idea. “Each time my grandmother comes into consciousness, via any of the sensory channels or in imagination, a ‘special’ cell, somewhere in the brain, is “active”.

The main criticism of the ‘grandmother cell’ hypothesis [aside from its prioritising of perception over thought & movement] is that there are far more potential percepts, than available neurons. Another criticism is that by focusing exclusively on feed-forward pathways, the hypothesis ignores the anatomical 'reality’ of extensive feedback pathways. Nevertheless, in-vivo electrophysiological work in humans undergoing neurosurgical procedures has provided evidence that there are neurons in the medial temporal lobe, which have the characteristics of grandmother cells.

Dynamic Assemblies

The second account prioritizes flexible, dynamic assemblies of neurons over ‘special’ cells. An assembly is defined as a constellation of neurons, which are firing action-potentials within the same narrow time-window (synchronously). Here, processing is a more ‘democratic affair’, and no special cells are required. Feedback and feed-forward connections are equally important, as the network (the assembly) reaches a consensus. Assemblies are transient entities, emerging for a period before ‘dissolving’, perhaps to ‘reappear’ at a later instant. A temporarily ‘dominant assembly' may ‘recruit’ other ‘partners’. Allegiances are flexible, with co-operation at one instant and competition at another. And over longer periods of time, assemblies can become – stronger; by virtue of sheer repetition and the ‘rules’ of long-term-potentiation (LTP), particularly if monoamine systems are co-active – or weaker; if the ‘content’ is fleeting or insignificant. Network oscillations (rhythms) provide a metronome, to ensure that the right cells fire in synchrony. Gamma (30–200 Hz) rhythms ‘bind’ local assemblies, whereas lower frequencies (theta, alpha, and beta) sub-serve long-distance communication between brain areas.

Of course, it is entirely feasible that the CNS makes use of both schemes described above [special cells & dynamic assemblies]. Processing power may reach grand heights when special [gnostic] cells come together as an assembly.

Sculpting CNS tissue

Spike-timing-dependent plasticity (STDP) depends on the conjunction of pre and post-synaptic events, within a narrow time envelope, of the order of tens of milliseconds or so. In the most straightforward version, a synapse is strengthened if a pre-synaptic input occurs immediately prior to a post-synaptic action potential (AP). If on the other hand, the input arrives in the immediate aftermath of a post-synaptic AP, the synapse is weakened. Pre and post-synaptic events beyond the critical time-window (i.e. unpaired ‘events’) leave synaptic strength unchanged. This shows how the precise timing of neuronal firing impacts upon the network. [And this impact is structural, as well as biochemical, Link]. Two aspects of STDP are notable:

1. Conventional neuromodulators appear to ‘tweak’ STDP. Actually ‘tweak’ is an understatement. The presence of a modulator such as dopamine can transform a normal pre-> post strengthening into a depression instead. More succinctly, dopamine can determine the direction of plasticity (+ or -).

2. The critical time window of STDP (tens of milliseconds) is in exactly the same ‘ballpark’ as network oscillations in the gamma band (period ~25ms).

The elegance of STDP is that it begins to reveal how apparently unconnected phenomena [brain-oscillations and neuromodulator systems], are integrated within a fundamental CNS function – how synapses and circuits are sculpted over time.


Dopamine & psychosis: Old fashions, new findings.

Dopamine is the archetypal late '60s, early '70s transmitter, famous for it's involvement in schizophrenia. Like much else from this era, the dopamine story is discovered anew by successive generations. That story – that the dramatic symptoms of schizophrenia are caused by too much dopamine – has survived as fashions have come and gone.

dopamine terminal

Dopamine is synthesised in pre-synaptic boutons from the amino-acid tyrosine (TYR), via DOPA. Patients who respond well to anti-psychotics appear to have increased synthesis of dopamine (DA).

A recent paper from researchers in London adds a new twist. It appears that those patients who respond well to anti-psychotic drugs (which block dopamine receptors) have elevated pre-synaptic dopamine. In contrast, the (thankfully small) group of patients who don't do so well on anti-psychotics appear to be no different from healthy controls in regard to pre-synaptic dopamine.

Further work, including replication of the findings, will be necessary. But these results suggest that there are dopamine and non-dopamine forms of psychosis.

Hopefully, in time, there will be technological improvements allowing prospective testing of individual patients prior to initiating drug therapy. New, non-dopamine based anti-psychotics are also a priority.

The abstract can be read here

Download a free high-res vector graphic.