Math is a pain in the brain

November 27, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Research, Spinewave Bulletin 

“Mental Abuse To Humans” is what my niece calls it. Mathematics anxiety can prompt a response in the brain similar to when a person experiences physical pain, according to new research at the University of Chicago.

Using brain scans, scholars determined that the brain areas active when highly math-anxious people prepare to do math overlap with the same brain areas that register the threat of bodily harm – and in some cases, physical pain.

“For someone who has math anxiety, the anticipation of doing math prompts a similar brain reaction as when they experience pain – say, burning one’s hand on a hot stove,” said Sian Beilock, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on math anxiety.

Surprisingly, the researchers found it was the anticipation of having to do math, and not actually doing math itself, that looked like pain in the brain. “The brain activation does not happen during math performance, suggesting that it is not the math itself that hurts; rather the anticipation of math is painful,” added Ian Lyons, a 2012 PhD graduate in psychology from UChicago and a postdoctoral scholar at Western University in Ontario, Canada.

This latest study points to the value of seeing math anxiety not just as a proxy for poor math ability, but as an indication there can be a real, negative psychological reaction to the prospect of doing math. This reaction needs to be addressed like any other phobia, the researchers said. Rather than simply piling on math homework for students who are anxious about math, students need active help to become more comfortable with the subject, Beilock said. Beilock’s work has shown, for instance, that writing about math anxieties before a test can reduce one’s worries and lead to better performance.

Reference: Ian M. Lyons, Sian L. Beilock. When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math. PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (10): e48076

Is drug research trustworthy?

November 22, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Research, Spinewave Bulletin 

Many researchers maintain close financial ties to the drug companies that stand to gain from the results of their research.

US Congress passed the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, which, starting in 2013, will compel pharmaceutical firms and medical device manufacturers to reveal most of the money that they are putting into the pockets of physicians. Yet as the case study in this article shows, neither scientific institutions nor the scientists themselves have shown a willingness to police conflicts of interest in research.

The effort of pharmaceutical companies to influence science discourse often takes the form of ghostwriting. Once a drugmaker can steer the way that a research article is written, it is able to control, to a large degree, how a scientific result is understood and used by clinicians and researchers.

The entanglements between researchers and pharmaceutical companies take many forms. There are speakers bureaus: a drugmaker gives a researcher money to travel—often first class—to gigs around the country, where the researcher sometimes gives a company-written speech and presents company-drafted slides. There is ghostwriting: a pharmaceutical manufacturer has an article drafted and pays a scientist (the “guest author”) an honorarium to put his or her name on it and submit it to a peer-reviewed journal. And then there is consulting: a company hires a researcher to render advice. Researchers “think what these companies are after are their brains, but they’re really after the brand,” says Marcia Angell, former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. “To buy a distinguished, senior academic researcher, the kind of person who speaks at meetings, who writes textbooks, who writes journal articles—that’s worth 100,000 salespeople.”

Researchers cannot stop the influence of drug company money. Hospitals and universities will not do it. The NIH refuses to do it. And as a result, millions of taxpayer dollars fund research whose objectivity is being undermined. Congress, which holds the purse strings, is hopping mad.

Read the full article by Charles Seife: How Drug Company Money Is Undermining Science.

Reference: Scientific American 307, 56 – 63 (2012).

Image: Wang, A. T. et al. Association between industry affiliation and position on cardiovascular risk with “Rosiglitazone”: Cross sectional systematic review. British Medical Journal, Vol.340, No.7750; April 2010.

Your brain by the numbers

November 10, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Research, Spinewave Bulletin 

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