Monthly Archives: June 2014

The power of a well-chosen image; EEG measures of brain activity and exercise

This picture:

Bd36lfSCUAAWG3h.png-large
…occasionally does the rounds on Twitter, often spurred by tweets from the kind of evidence-phobic accounts that publish whole lists of mind-blowing ‘facts’, at least 50% of which are made up. This picture has also spurred about a billion blog posts (like here, here and here), somewhat unsurprisingly, written by the kind of people who like to get their scientific evidence from a single image on Twitter.

So what’s the problem here? What the image appears to suggest at face value is that brain activity is increased after a short bout of exercise (a 20-minute walk). Sounds reasonable, right? We know that exercise has various effects on brain function, and exercise in general is definitely a good thing, now that the Western world is suffering from massive rates of obesity, diabetes, etc. I really don’t have a problem with the message here, more in the way that it’s presented.

The brain images are clearly from an EEG, but beyond that, there’s very little information in the images about what it actually represents. There are lots and lots of different things you can measure with EEG technology, such as the P300, Error-Related Negativity, C1 and P1, or much slower neural oscillations across a wide range of frequency bands. We have no information about what particular measure this image is describing. Secondly, we have no information about what the colours mean. Heat-map colour scales on brain images like this often represent statistical values (usually or scores), which is a convenient way of representing a large amount of numerical data in a visual-friendly format. Here though, we have no colour-scale information, so we have no idea what the colours represent.

Here’s some brain images I just created from some MRI data I had laying around. Took about three minutes.

brain_threshold

Big difference, right? Somewhat counter-intuitively, the left and right images above are actually the exact same functional brain data, all I did to create the right one was to lower the statistical threshold on the colour-overlay, to essentially say “Show me more results, I don’t care if they’re statistically reliable or not.” People who do this kind of work are very clued-in to these kinds of issues, and would always look for a colour-scale on these kinds of images in research papers. Clearly though the general public aren’t that conversant with statistical issues in brain imaging, because why would they be?

What we do have in the original image is an attribution to a guy called Chuck Hillman at the University of Illnois. Dr Hillman appears to be a perfectly respectable scientist, performing some perfectly respectable research focussing on the interaction between exercise and the brain. I have absolutely no problem with Dr Hillman or his obviously very worthwhile research. Looking through his articles, I can’t find an image which matches the one at the top of the post, although this paper  (PDF, Figure 2, page 548) does contain one that’s somewhat similar. That image shows the amplitude of the p300 wave during a particular task, after a period of reading and a period of exercise. Unfortunately the colour-scale here is in raw units of EEG signal (micro-volts) so it’s not totally clear if that represents a statistically-significant difference or not. If anyone can work out where the original image at the top comes from, please let me know in the comments!

As something of an aside, is an increase in brain activity necessarily a positive thing? Oxidative stress can potentially occur as the result of an increase in brain metabolism, and oxidative stress has been implicated as a potential causal factor in a huge variety of problems, from cancer to Alzheimer’s. One could even argue that lower brain activity is better because it indicates a more efficient use of cognitive resources; performing the same task, with less activity, equals greater efficiency. Although using the concept of ‘efficiency’ in this way is currently fairly controversial.

The essential point here is that when images like this are presented in academic papers or presentations, they come packaged with a whole host of caveats, qualifications, and additional information. Of course, scientists often try to make visually arresting images in order to present their results with maximum impact and clarity, and (as long as they don’t cheat in some way) that’s entirely appropriate, and indeed useful. The problem comes when someone else takes those images, strips them of this essential contextual information and presents them uncritically, often in order to further their own agenda or aims. Without the context, these images become pretty much meaningless. If this kind of thing happened to some result from my own research, I’d be pretty embarrassed about it. As ever, a critical approach to this kind of un-critically presented ‘evidence’ is crucial.

 

Advertisements

Transcranial direct-current stimulation – don’t try it at home

"Many Shubs and Zulls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Sloar that day I can tell you."

“Many Shubs and Zulls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Sloar that day I can tell you.”

I’ve written before about tDCS and in particular the device produced by a company called foc.us; a company marketing a tDCS device to gamers. As a brief recap, tDCS involves passing a low-level electric current through your brain, and thereby attempting to stimulate particular regions of the cortex in order to enhance particular functions. Academics have been using this (and similar) method for a while now, and showing some interesting effects in all kinds of motor, sensory and cognitive domains (for a fairly broad review see here; PDF).

When academics perform this procedure on their experimental subjects for the purposes of research they have to get clearance from an ethical review board first, and they observe strict limits in order to ensure the safety of their participants, both in terms of the time they stimulate for, and the amount of electrical current they use. However, there is a community of amateur tDCS enthusiasts, who build their own equipment and zap their brains at home. If this sounds like a spectacularly bad idea, you’d be dead right. These guys (and let’s face it, it’s usually guys) naturally aren’t bound by the same safety rules; the only limit is their own stupidity.

TDCS appears to be becoming more mainstream, with commercial products like the foc.us headset and positive write-ups in media outlets (like this one and this one) helping to raise the profile of what has been up until now, a pretty niche activity. This BBC report focuses on the military applications of the technology and proclaims that the US military are ‘very interested in its potential’. Yeah, well… the US military also ran a 20-year research program into remote viewing and other psychic phenomena (only discontinued in 1995!) so let’s not put too much faith in their ability to spot obvious bollocks.

The point I want to get across here is that DIY-tDCS is not only pretty unlikely to actually do anything useful, but can also be potentially extremely dangerous. I know, right? Who’d have thought that passing electric currents through your brain might be a problem? The tDCS sub-reddit page is full of horror-stories ranging from people suffering electrode burns (like this guy) to this story of a user suffering crippling anxiety, panic attacks and depression for more than a year after tDCS. Whether the tDCS actually caused these fairly extreme symptoms in this particular case is somewhat debatable, and probably unknowable, but the point is that relatively severe adverse events can, and do happen with these devices. Most worryingly of all, there’s a report here on the electrical safety of the commercial foc.us device, which suggests that it doesn’t perform in the manner it specifies in terms of regulating the voltage, and can cause skin burns. This user claims to have suffered severe migraine-like pain after a session with the foc.us device.

To sum up:

Do not pass electrical currents through your head! It is a bloody stupid thing to do.

Seriously, if you want to give yourself some kind of an ‘edge’ in gaming, or studying, or whatever, just have a quadruple espresso – much safer and more effective.

Thanks to @neuroconscience for pointing out the tDCS horror-stories on Reddit.