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Amusing pain, elevating music, and other jewels from the Society for Neuroscience meeting

Welcome to Mind Matters
where top researchers in neuroscience, psychology, and psychiatry explain and discuss the findings and theories driving their fields. 
Readers can join them. We hope you will.
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This week Mind Matters visits not just a particular paper, but the massive annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience -- 30,000+ neuroscientists, scores of major lectures, hundreds of symposia, thousands and thousands of symposia and minisymposia. Scientific American has three people here, and we haven't a prayer -- way too many things to attend. Sorting out what to do next poses severe challenges to mechanisms of time management, executive function, attentional control, sleep-cycle adjustment, shoe quality, and memory.In return you get exposed to stunning international diversity, an amazing variety of ideas and disciplines, and the occasional comic exchange that arises from the collision of all these things.

My favorite so far was a short conversation between two 30-ish neurobiologists. They were standing in front of their posters, which concerned arcane mechanisms of neurochemistry, and had just finished talking with someone who studied neuroethology -- a sort of crossroards between neuroscience, zoology, and evolution. After the two nascent neurobiochemists watched the neuroethologist walk away, one said to the other, "Neuroethology. What the hell is that?" After a pause the other one said, "Exactly." (For the answer, go here.)

The variety of subjects covered is daunting and wonderful: how fasting can help you build brain cells; thought-controlled machines; how walnuts can make you smarter.Some notables so far:Classical music as antidepressantThis study comes out of Alzahra University, in Tehran, where a group of researchers, noting that music therapy has already been shown to reduce pain, improve sleep quality, and improve mood in cancer patients underoing therapy and multiple sclerosis patients, wondered if music might alleviate depression as well. It does.

They took 56 depressed subjects, had them listen to Beethoven's 3d and 5th piano sonatas for 15 minutes twice a week in a clean, otherwise quiet room -- and saw their depression scores on the standard Beck Depression Scale go up signficantly. No side effects! And music is cheap -- a lifetime of Beethoven for the price of a couple weeks of Prozac.

This obviously needs further work, but as a music lover I find it damn encouraging. The resesarchers plan on doing another study using EEGs instruments to monitor brain changes, and I'd love to see some imaging work on this. Methinks that if classical music publishers could match the drug industry's marketing budgets, we'd be listening to a lot of Beethoven sonatas. Which you can do, briefly, by (going here for a mood-improving listen.Empathy (not) for sweethearts in painA few weeks ago we ran reviews by Frans de Waal and Peggy Mason of a paper about mice showing empathy; the study found that mice viewing other mice in distress were more sensitive to pain themselves.

Discouraging news, folks: A poster here at the meeting suggests that humans viewing their own spouses in pain may feel ... well, good. This one's still in the grain-of-salt department, mind you: It's a poster, which means it's on evidence still getting worked up and not yet peer-reviewed. But still: Yikes.The researchers, a group led by Haverford College psychology professor Wendy Sternberg, took a bunch of college students who had romantic partners, subjected them to levels of heat at the threshold of pain, filmed them, and then showed the video to their sweethearts. (Yes, they got informed consent.) As the Haverford team notes, previous research by Singer had shown that people overving a loved in in pain showed brain activation patterns similar to that which occurred when they themselves were in pain. The Haverford team figured their subjects would likewise show greater pain sensitivity.

However, as the team noted, "Overall, this hypothesis was not borne out." Some of the subjects showed more empathy, and the pain threshold for those subjects indeed rose, as it had with the mice. But for most of the subjects, watching the videos of their partners in pain "did not make the subjects more sensitive to pain," according to Sternberg, who added that "indeed, [those] subjects seemed to find the videos of their partners to be somewhat amusing."Let's just hope this is a college-age stage.

There's much, much more, such as a group that says it has developed an effective web-based cognitive-training exercise -- interesting if true, and I hope to test it shortly, which perhaps reflects on my decision-making powers. But right now I've got to go, as I fear I'll be late for a lecture on the neural mechanisms of fear.- by David Dobbs

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