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Month: March 2020

29 Mar 2020

The distorted idea of ‘cool’ brain research is stifling psychotherapy

There has never been a problem facing mankind more complex than understanding our own human nature. And no shortage of neat, plausible, and wrong answers purporting to plumb its depths.

Having treated many thousands of psychiatric patients in my career, and having worked on the American Psychiatric Association’s efforts to classify psychiatric symptoms (published as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-IV and DSM-5), I can affirm confidently that there are no neat answers in psychiatry. The best we can do is embrace an ecumenical four-dimensional model that includes all possible contributors to human functioning: the biological, the psychological, the social, and the spiritual. Reducing people to just one element – their brain functioning, or their psychological tendencies, or their social context, or their struggle for meaning – results in a flat, distorted image that leaves out more than it can capture.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) was established in 1949 by the federal government in the United States with the practical goal of providing ‘an objective, thorough, nationwide analysis and reevaluation of the human and economic problems of mental health.’ Until 30 years ago, the NIMH appreciated the need for this well-rounded approach and maintained a balanced research budget that covered an extraordinarily wide range of topics and techniques.

But in 1990, the NIMH suddenly and radically switched course, embarking on what it tellingly named the ‘Decade of the Brain.’ Ever since, the NIMH has increasingly narrowed its focus almost exclusively to brain biology – leaving out everything else that makes us human, both in sickness and in health. Having largely lost interest in the plight of real people, the NIMH could now more accurately be renamed the ‘National Institute of Brain Research’.

This misplaced reductionism arose from the availability of spectacular research tools (eg, the Human Genome Project, functional magnetic resonance imaging, molecular biology, and machine learning) combined with the naive belief that brain biology could eventually explain all aspects of mental functioning. The results have been a grand intellectual adventure, but a colossal clinical flop. We have acquired a fantastic window into gene and brain functioning, but little to help clinical practice.

The more we learn about genetics and the brain, the more impossibly complicated both reveal themselves to be. We have picked no low-hanging fruit after three decades and $50 billion because there simply is no low-hanging fruit to pick. The human brain has around 86 billion neurons, each communicating with thousands of others via hundreds of chemical modulators, leading to trillions of potential connections. No wonder it reveals its secrets only very gradually and in a piecemeal fashion.

Genetics offers the same baffling complexity. For instance, variation in more than 100 genes contributes to vulnerability to schizophrenia, with each gene contributing just the tiniest bit, and interacting in the most impossibly complicated ways with other genes, and also with the physical and social environment. Even more discouraging, the same genes are often implicated in vulnerability to multiple mental disorders – defeating any effort to establish specificity. The almost endless permutations will defeat any easy genetic answers, no matter how many decades and billions we invest.

The NIMH has boxed itself into a badly unbalanced research portfolio. Playing with ‘cool’ brain and gene research toys trumps the much harder and less intellectually rewarding task of helping real people.

Contrast this current NIMH failure with a great success story from NIMH’s distant past. One of the high points of my career was sitting on the NIMH granting committee that funded psychotherapy studies in the 1980s. We helped to support the US psychologist Marsha Linehan’s research that led her to develop dialectical behavior therapy; the US psychiatrist Aaron T Beck’s development of cognitive therapy; along with numerous other investigators and themes. Subsequent studies have established that psychotherapy is as effective as medications for mild-to-moderate depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric problems, and avoids the burden of medication side-effects and complications. Many millions of people around the world have already been helped by NIMH psychotherapy research.

In a rational world, the NIMH would continue to fund a robust psychotherapy research budget and promote its use as a public-health initiative to reduce the current massive overprescription of psychiatric medication in the US. Brief psychotherapy would be the first-line treatment of most psychiatric problems that require intervention. Drug treatments would be reserved for severe psychiatric problems and for those people who haven’t responded sufficiently to watchful waiting or psychotherapy.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a rational world. Drug companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year influencing politicians, marketing misleadingly to doctors, and pushing pharmaceutical treatments on the public. They successfully sold the fake marketing jingle that all emotional symptoms are due to a ‘chemical imbalance’ in the brain and therefore all require a pill solution. The result: 20% of US citizens use psychotropic drugs, most of which are no more than expensive placebos, all of which can produce harmful side-effects.

Drug companies are commercial Goliath with enormous political and economic power. Psychotherapy is a tiny David with no marketing budget; no salespeople mobbing doctors’ offices; no TV ads; no internet pop-ups; no influence with politicians or insurance companies. No surprise then that the NIMH’s neglect of psychotherapy research has been accompanied by its neglect in clinical practice. And the NIMH’s embrace of biological reductionism provides an unintended and unwarranted legitimization of the drug-company promotion that there is a pill for every problem.

A balanced NIMH budget would go a long way toward correcting the two biggest mental-health catastrophes of today. Studies comparing psychotherapy versus medication for a wide variety of mild to moderate mental disorders would help to level the playing field for the two, and eventually reduce our massive overdependence on drug treatments for nonexistent ‘chemical imbalances’. Health service research is desperately needed to determine best practices to help people with severe mental illness avoid incarceration and homelessness, and also escape from them.

The NIMH is entitled to keep an eye on the future, but not at the expense of the desperate needs of the present. Brain research should remain an important part of a balanced NIMH agenda, not its sole preoccupation. After 30 years of running down a bio-reductionistic blind alley, it is long past time for the NIMH to consider a biopsychosocial reset, and to rebalance its badly uneven research portfolio.

Source: https://thenextweb.com/syndication/2020/03/29/the-distorted-idea-of-cool-brain-research-is-stifling-psychotherapy/

23 Mar 2020

Researchers Find Captivating New Details In Image of Black Hole

Last April, the international coalition of scientists who run the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), a network of eight telescopes from around the world, revealed the first-ever image of a black hole.

Now, a team of researchers at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard have revealed calculations, as detailed in a paper published in the journal Science Advances today, that predict an intricate internal structure within black hole images caused by extreme gravitational light bending.

The new research, they say, could lead to much sharper images when compared to the blurry ones we’ve seen so far.

“With the current EHT image, we’ve caught just a glimpse of the full complexity that should emerge in the image of any black hole,” said Michael Johnson a lecturer at the Center for Astrophysics, in a statement.

The EHT image was able to catch the black hole’s “photon sphere” or “photon ring,” a region around a black hole where gravity is so overpowering, it forces photons to travel in orbits.

But as it turns out, there’s even more to the image.

“The image of a black hole actually contains a nested series of rings,” Johnson said. “Each successive ring has about the same diameter but becomes increasingly sharper because its light orbited the black hole more times before reaching the observer.”

Until last year, that internal structure of black holes remained shrouded in mystery.“As a theorist, I am delighted to finally glean real data about these objects that we’ve been abstractly thinking about for so long,” Alex Lupsasca from the Harvard Society of Fellows said in the statement.

These newly discovered substructures could allow for even sharper images in the future. “What really surprised us was that while the nested subrings are almost imperceptible to the naked eye on images — even perfect images — they are strong and clear signals for arrays of telescopes called interferometers,” Johnson added.

“While capturing black hole images normally requires many distributed telescopes, the subrings are perfect to study using only two telescopes that are very far apart,” Johnson said. “Adding one space telescope to the EHT would be enough.”

There might be other ways as well. In November, a team of Dutch astronomers suggested sending two to three satellites equipped with radio imaging technology to observe black holes at five times the sharpness of the last attempt.

Source: https://futurism.com/researchers-take-sharper-black-hole-images

18 Mar 2020

SCIENTISTS INVENT DEVICE TO GENERATE ELECTRICITY FROM RAIN

Brief Jolt
A team of engineers has figured out how to take a single drop of rain and use it to generate a powerful flash of electricity.

The City University of Hong Kong researchers behind the device, which they’re calling a droplet-based electricity generator (DEG), say that a single rain droplet can briefly generate 140 volts. That was enough to briefly power 100 small lightbulbs and, while it’s not yet practical enough for everyday use, it’s a promising step toward a new form of renewable electricity.

Forming Bridges
The DEG uses a “field-effect transistor-style structure,” Engadget reports, which can turn rainfall into short bursts of power.

The material the device is made from contains a quasi-permanent electrical charge, and the rain is merely what triggers the flow of energy, according to research published last week in the journal Nature.

Early Tests
The real trick will be finding a way to turn this technology into something that might be viable for people’s homes — for now, it’s not reliable enough to deliver a continuous supply of power, as it needs to charge up before it can let out another burst.

In the meantime, Engadget suggests, it could serve as a small, temporary power source on futuristic water bottles or umbrellas.

Source: https://futurism.com/the-byte/generate-electricity-rain

15 Mar 2020

Scientists Discover “Peculiar” Teardrop-Shaped Star

“I’ve been looking for a star like this for nearly 40 years and now we have finally found one.”

A team of astronomers have discovered a strange star that oscillates in a rhythmic pattern — but only on one side, causing gravitational forces to distort it into a teardrop shape.

“We’ve known theoretically that stars like this should exist since the 1980s,” said professor Don Kurtz from the University of Central Lancashire and co-author of the paper published in Nature Astronomy on Monday, in a statement. “I’ve been looking for a star like this for nearly 40 years and now we have finally found one.”

The star, known as HD74423, is about 1.7 times the mass of the Sun and was spotted around 1,500 light years from Earth — still within the confines of the Milky Way — using public data from NASA’s planet-hunting TESS satellite.

“What first caught my attention was the fact it was a chemically peculiar star,” said co-author Simon Murphy from the Sydney Institute for Astronomy at the University of Sydney in the statement. “Stars like this are usually fairly rich with metals – but this is metal poor, making it a rare type of hot star.”

Stars have been found to oscillate at different rhythms and to different degrees — including our own Sun. Astronomers suspect they’re caused by convection and magnetic field forces inside the star.

While the exact causes of these pulsations vary, these oscillations have usually been observed on all sides of the star. HD74423, however, was found to pulsate on only one side because of its red dwarf companion with which it makes up a binary star system.

They were found to do such a close dance — an orbital period of just two days — that the larger star is being distorted into a teardrop shape.

The astronomers suspect it won’t be the last of its kind to be discovered.

“We expect to find many more hidden in the TESS data,” said co-author Saul Rappaport, a professor at MIT.

Source: https://futurism.com/scientists-peculiar-teardrop-shaped-star

07 Mar 2020

How to Leverage AI to Upskill Employees

Artificial intelligence is the answer to polishing math skills and plugging our workforce pipeline.

 

One of the largest economic revolutions of our time is unfolding around us. Technology, innovation and automation are redrawing the career paths of millions of people. Most headlines focus on the negative, i.e. machines taking our jobs. But in reality, these developments are opening up a world of opportunity for people who can make the move to a STEM career or upskill in their current job. There’s also another part to this story: How AI can help boost the economy by improving how we learn.

In 2018, 2.4 million STEM jobs in the U.S. went unfilled. That’s almost equal to the entire population of Los Angeles or Chicago. It’s a gap causing problems for employers trying to recruit and retain workers, whether in startups, small businesses or major corporations. We just don’t have enough workers.

The Unspoken Barrier 

The barrier preventing new or existing employees from adding to their skill set and filling the unfulfilled jobs? Math. Calculus to be specific. It has become a frustrating impediment to many people seeking a STEM career. For college students, the material is so difficult that one-third of them in the U.S. fail the related course or drop it out of frustration. For adults, learning calculus is not always compulsory for the day to day of every STEM job, but learning its principles can help sharpen logic and reasoning. Plus, simply understanding how calculus relates to real-world scenarios is helpful in many STEM jobs. Unfortunately, for many people, the thought of tackling any level of math is enough to scare them away from a new opportunity.  We need to stop looking at math as a way to filter people out of the STEM pipeline. We need to start looking at it as a way to help more people, including professionals looking to pivot careers.

How AI Can Change How Employees Learn

How do we solve this hurdle and fill plug the pipeline? Artificial intelligence. We often discuss how AI can be used to help data efficiencies and process automation, but AI can also assist in personal tutoring to get people over the barriers of difficult math. The recently released Aida Calculus app uses AI to create a highly personalized learning experience and is the first of its kind to use a very complex combination of AI algorithms that provide step-by-step feedback on equations and then serve up custom content showing how calculus works in the real world.

While the product is important, the vision behind it is much bigger. This is a really impactful application of AI for good. It also shows that math skills can be developed in everyone and technology like AI can change the way people learn difficult subjects. The goal is to engage anyone, be it a student or working adult, who is curious about how to apply math in their daily lives. By making calculus relevant and relatable, we can begin to instill the confidence people need to take on STEM careers, even if those jobs don’t directly use calculus.

Leveraging AI Through Human Development

When people boost their complex math skills or even their general understanding of basic math concepts, there’s a world of opportunity waiting. STEM jobs outearn non-STEM jobs by up to 30 percent in some cases. A 2017 study commissioned by Qualcomm suggested that 5G will create 22 million jobs globally by 2035. The U.S. Labor Department says that IT fields will add half a million new jobs in the next eight years and that jobs in information security will grow by 30 percent. Job growth in STEM is outpacing overall U.S. job growth. At the same time, Pearson’s own Global Learners Survey said that 61 percent of Americans are likely to change careers entirely. It’s a good time for that 61 percent to consider STEM.

To equip themselves for this new economy, people will have to learn how learn. Whether it’s math or any other subject, they’ll likely need to study again, and that is hard. But we can use innovation and technology to make the tough subjects a little easier and make the whole learning experience more personalized, helping a whole generation of people take advantage of the opportunity to become the engineers, data analysts and scientists we need.

Source: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/345502