Monday, April 11, 2011

Two New Mental Disorders?

Researchers are forever trying to link existing mental disorders with some kind, any kind, of brain structure “abnormality.”  Even the weakest of links send people into hysterical excitement and soon we see flashy headlines claiming Researchers Find Neurological Cause . . .” for, well, just fill in the blank yourself with your favorite mental disorder.

So, this is just what I was thinking about when I came across this flashy brain structure study, published in Current Biology, which found a significant link between anatomical brain differences and certain identifiable behaviors.  It’s a headline grabber for sure.

Of course, any researcher who has an actual college degree and took Statistics 101, would never, never assume that correlation equals causation, but this doesn’t stop people from doing endless correlational studies that grab headlines and are statistically significant but are of no use diagnostically.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can see for yourself.  Go to Google and do a search for:  “brain structure” +adhd

ADHD happens to be a favorite target for useless correlational brain structure studies that might be interesting but give us no immediately useful knowledge because the differences they find can never be clearly separated out from the background noise of human variation.

But, back to the topic at hand . . . this write-up from Current Biology, found a strong link between brain structure and behavior that gives us a greater neurological understanding of this behavior than we have of many mental disorders.  What I don’t understand is why the authors didn’t make that leap and suggest a couple new diagnoses.  Does it make any difference that the behavior they looked at was political identification?  Honestly, I don’t know why it should make any difference; it seems to me we have two new perfectly good mental illness labels with some statistically significant data to back it all up.  All we need to do now is develop some psychopharmacological interventions and some evidence based psychotherapies.  Then we’re in business.

Kanai, et al., found that people who say they are liberal (gee, does anyone really do that anymore?) have thicker anterior cingulated cortexes.  On the other hand, people who go around using the word conservative in reference to themselves have inflated right (wing) amygdalas.  So, the authors interpret this to mean that liberals are able to cope with conflicting information (in other words, they’re spineless elitist smarty-pants who can’t make decisions) while conservatives are more able to recognize threats (which I interpret just a little further as meaning they are neurologically closer to highland gorillas than they are to homo sapiens sapiens).

Well, that’s all very cute, but let’s turn this into a real money maker.  It’s simple.  All we have to do is turn the glass-half-full language into glass-half-empty language.  Like this:

Liberalism Not Otherwise Specified is linked to smaller than average amygdalas resulting in impaired ability to recognize threats leading to being taken advantage of by freeloaders and traumatized by bullies and obstinate foreign powers.

Conservatism With or Without Paranoid Delusions is linked to withered anterior cingulates resulting in impaired ability to process complex information leading to reactive, bellicose and sometimes violent behaviors when confronted with multifaceted ideas and situations.

See? That wasn’t so hard, was it now?  Is it too late to get them added to the DSM-5?

Reference:  Ryota Kanai, Tom Feilden, Colin Firth, Geraint Rees.  Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults.  Current Biology, 07 April 2011 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.03.017



    this bothers me...I tried to understand by looking up the words directional diffusion coherence in google advanced search and negated the name of the author, Lange.

    Seems the term only comes up 5 reference to the same paper. Do scientists just make shit up to fool funding sources?

  2. One of the funniest things I've read in a long time, great post, spot-on satire. The media (and most psychologists) really have no clue how to interpret neuroimaging results.

  3. r.b., IMHO researchers who do these kind of controlled studies will develop (make up) models post hoc to explain a phenomenon they stumbled across. They then have to explain and name their new model. And of course you want it to sound sciency so you get more grant money in the future.

    But, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit I have a MA in a social science, so perhaps my perspective is a tad skewed.