Friday, May 08, 2009

The theory extensions and practical applications of neuroscience

The 90's was officially designated the 'decade of the brain' usshered in by George Bush (ahem..) in July, 1990. What followed was an exponential increase in publications and attention (and attention publications) in the area of neuroscience. Science and nature became homes for the familiar 'light-up' fMRI brain images. Time magazine published 'a users guide' to the brain and a myriad of other such images dominated psychological media articles across the globe. Of course, this is great research and much of the coverage is warranted. However, one wonders to what extent this can be to the detriment of psychological theory and the study of behaviour in the laboratory and ecologically valid settings..

For instance, an article published last week in science asked 'Why can some people exert self-control whilst others have severe problems?'. The answer 'it's because the ventromedial prefrontal cortex encodes the value of a stimulus but the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex fails to down-modulate this value in line with your goals of course!! I think this is fantastic research and definitely adds an extra dimension to existing theory (the neural underpinnings). But I don't see entirely, how it extends the theory or how much of neuroscience research has lead to practical applications that couldn't be derived from the study of behaviour alone. If this is the case, investment largely in neuroscience or neuroeconomics (over psychology or economics)will constrain the development of the social sciences.

Take a recent article on practical implications of developments in neuroscience Neuroscience and education:
from research to practice
. This article discusses the very novel idea of 'brain-based learning in school'.. prior to the article teachers must have trained another body part in the classroom.. Teachers can identify through behavioural tests if their students are right or left brained and then use this information to provide ‘left- and right-brain balanced’ learning...Another programme "Brain GymR prescribes a series of simple body movements “to integrate all areas of the brain to enhance learning”.".. still not seeing where the brain comes in aside from potentially assessing the neural effect of such a programme.

A third innovation "Whole-brain learning" is partially movement based and "enables students to access those areas of the brain previously unavailable to them." You are not trying a new movement therapy.. you are accessing a new brain area.. much better. Finally, the punch line "the effects of any type of training programme that changes behaviour will be reflected in the ‘remapping’ of neural networks." So we were doing brain-based learning all along!!


Martin Ryan said...

Michael, when I hear an answer such as "it's because the ventromedial prefrontal cortex encodes the value of a stimulus but the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex fails to down-modulate this value in line with your goals", I'm inclined to wonder about the genetic basis for things like:
(i) prefrontal cortex encoding
(ii) dorsolateral prefrontal cortex down-modulation

Heckman spoke recently at the IEA about how the nature/nurture debate has moved on to the idea of genetic expression. I've also blogged before about possible evidence for a genetic basis to the Big-Five Weiss et al. (2008), and risk-taking (Lin et al., 2005).

Alexander Weiss, Timothy C. Bates, Michelle Luciano, Happiness Is a Personal(ity) Thing: The Genetics of Personality and Well-Being in a Representative Sample, Psychological Science,19, 3, pp. 205-210 (2008).

Lin,C.H., Hansen,S., Wang,Z., Storm,D.R., Tapscott,S.J. and Olson,J.M. (2005) The dosage of the neuroD2 transcription factor regulates amygdala development and emotional learning. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA, 102, 14877–14882.

The finding on risk-taking is about the possibility for a genetic basis for neural development. If we consider this in the context of genetic expression theory, then we could consider that:
(a) everyone has the same genes
(b) some genes don't get turned on for some folks
(c) the genes that aren't turned on may affect neural development
(d) sub-optimal neural development may lead to excessive risk-taking or self-control problems

Of course, a schema such as this is very simplistic and may be flawed given that it's coming from an outsider looking in. But on the basis of the above, I wanted to pose to you that the most important questions may be:

(i) Are we sure that everybody has the same genes? (I think this is correct)
(ii) Why do some genes fail to get turned on for some people? (Here we might reflect upon early childhood developmnet including neurobiological factors such as starvation and nutrition)
(iii) Do we really need to know about neural underpinnings when genetic expression may be the true underlying cause? (This may be somewhat unfair as understanding every stop from biology to behaviour gives us a more complete picture that we can be more confident in putting forward for scrutiny)

Kevin Denny said...

"brain based learning" I love it! Mostly I have been using my spleen. Whenever I hear about right-brained or left-brained people I reach for my revolver. Sadly this "hemisphericity" is very common. A popular example is the "Drawing on the right side of the brain" book.

Liam Delaney said...

i think i know what you mean Martin but be careful about phrases like "everyone has the same genes" - we have different genes and they express themselves differently. Looking at genes that are common to different people but express themselves differently in different environments is certainly where a lot of this going.

Martin Ryan said...

Thanks Liam - I'm still trying to assemble the correct terminology, and to get a structure in my head, that runs from biology to behaviour.

Derek Bownds on his Mindblog, has a post "From Genes to Social Behaviour" where he mentions that the Nov. 7 issue of Science Magazine is a gold mine of articles on genetics and behavior. Links to Bownds:

Bownds quotes the following clip from the introduction:

When it comes to behavior, we have moved beyond genetic determinism. Our genes do not lock us into certain ways of acting; rather, genetic influences are complicated and mutable and are only one of many factors affecting behavior. In their editorial, Landis and Insel (p. 821) elaborate on this idea, explaining that proteins encoded by genes direct the formation of multicomponent neural circuits, which are the true substrates of behavior, as these circuits respond to internal and outside stimuli.

Kevin Denny said...

I could be wrong (no, really) but I think Martin is closer with the statement "we have the same genes". The genetic differences within a species arise from having different versions (alleles) of the same genes as well as differences in expression. In fact we have a lot of the same genes as related species (chimps) and even ones that are not so close (fruit-fly).