Cultural Influence on Cognition

Dr. Philip Grossi
Saturday, 28 August 2010

I came across an interesting article in press in the journal Cognition. It is entitled "God: Do I have your attention?" by Lorenza Colzato  and colleagues.  The authors look at the connection between religious upbringing and visual perception in three different populations: neo-Calvinists in the Netherlands, Roman Catholics in Italy, and Orthodox Jews in Israel and found that their perceptions differ from atheists of the same origin. 

illustration to cultural influence blogIn these times we are often exposed to religious targets, religious victims, religious terrorism arising from religious convictions of assorted types.   Religion is thought of as a set of rules informed by a culture that leads to formation of belief and determines an individual's response to rules and feelings.  The authors have selected religion as a proxy for cultural influence because of the over-broad inclusion of cultures and thus the difficulty of studying its influence in a convincing and clear-cut manner. Religions have the advantage of being better described and being relived in widely shared rituals and practices making the identification of splinter groups  possible.

Colzato and colleagues speculate that "religious training may induce particular cognitive-control strategies, and establish default control parameters that generalize to situations that have no bearing on religious belief."   On the one hand is the focus on the individual and away from global features such as other people's behavior or events or objects; on the other is a focus on a global precedence, social solidarity response.

In the first study, carried out in the Netherlands with its strong neo-Calvinist influence which is based on the concept sphere sovereignty which emphasizes that each sphere of life has its own responsibilities and authority which is equal to every other sphere.  Spheres other than your own should be left alone.  This has led to the compartmentalization of Dutch society with permissiveness toward abortion, euthanasia, and drug usage, but also the development of Apartheid in South Africa.  Reinforcement of these attitudes and "rules" would lead one to expect neo-Calvinists to chronically bias local attention compared to atheists.  The findings of the study support the idea that bias of attention is indeed a chronic by-product of ongoing religious practice.  The atheists (who had been Calvinists but were atheists for seven years) scored similarly to the conservative Calvinists.  Their visual perceptions were unchanged after seven years of non-practice.

Other types of religion with a different set of rules may bias attention and perception to a different direction.  If the type of bias acquired and learned by means of a particular practice is identified, it should be possible to demonstrate an increased precedence effect for religions that stress community and social cohesiveness.  To share this rule requires a "rule" of global attention should lead to a stronger precedence effect.  Roman Catholicism and Judaism have religious rituals mediated by priests and rabbis and pray in  social ways.  Both groups tend to be collectivists.  The findings were that the atheists differed from the religious groups in the way they attend to global and local features of visual stimuli. The effect of the religions on the global precedence effect is long-lasting, a matter of degree, and considering all the corrections to the groups likely reflects emphasis on social solidarity which is manifest in the emphasis on global processing events.  The core difference of individual vs. community is a particularly strong factor shaping the behavior of these communities.

Alcohol Abuse

Dr. Philip Grossi
Friday, 27 August 2010

Co-morbid alcohol abuse is common in individuals with psychiatric disorders.  According to K.T. Brady, 80% of alcoholics have an axis I disorder.  The reverse also applies.  More than 30% of anxiety and mood disorder patients and more than 50% of schizophrenics abuse substances.  In bipolar patients, 60% have an alcohol problem at some point in their lives. 

The destructive effects of alcohol abuse are thought to be proportional to the intake though gender matters.  Clinically it has seemed that women suffer greater damage then men, though this impression is confounded by a variety of variables that are difficult to control.  Moderate drinking is generally considered to be 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men.  Heavy drinking is 5 drinks per day for men or 4 drinks per day for women.  A drink is 12 oz. of beer or wine cooler, 5 oz (150 mL or cc) of wine, or 1.5 oz (45mL) of 80-proof distilled spirits.  These all contain 12.5 grams of ethanol.

There are well-known and documented medical complications including cardiovascular, hypertension, hepatitis, pancreatitis, esophageal cancer, liver cancer, colon cancer.  Neurological complications include decrease in grey and white matter, increased ventricular volume, and peripheral neuropathy.

illustration to alcohol abuse blogI am limiting my additional comments to alcohol's effect on the brain in both males and females.  Clinical observations support the notion that female alcoholics suffer more  liver and cardiac damage as well as more motor problems and cognitive impairment than men.   Women tend to be smaller and have a higher body fat content as well as a deficient stomach enzyme involved in metabolizing alcohol, so that they achieve higher blood alcohol than men when taking in the same amount of alcohol.  Yet more recent work indicates that sex does matter when assessing alcohol's effects though it is complicated.  Daniel Hommer of NIMH  Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism division reported that alcoholic women lost 11.1% of their grey matter when compared to normal controls but alcoholic men lost 5.6% of their grey matter.  For the white matter, the female loss was 8.2% and the male loss was 5.3%.  The cerebral fluid volume increased by 24.1% in women and only 10.5% in men.  This brain shrinkage had shown up by the time these alcoholics reached their early 30s.  Some other work carried out at Stanford by Adolf Pfefferbaum has not found these differences.  Unfortunately, there are a number of differences in these studies that leave the question unresolved. 

To go to the next level of molecular or genetic insight, imaging is not enough and human subjects cannot be used.  Enter Prendergast Littleton at University of Kentucky who identified a possible cause of damage in alcoholic brains. This molecule, spermidine, is released in rat brain tissue during alcohol withdrawal and its presence is associated with increased seizure activity in neurons.  When Prendergast and Littleton dosed brains with alcohol and watched the amount of neuronal death during withdrawal, they fould no sex difference until they added spermidine.  They think that spermidine is released in a normal reparative process but that in women it somehow goes awry and causes seizure activity in neurons already compromised by alcohol.  This fits with another previous research finding. After glutamate attaches to the NMDA receptor allowing a measured quantity of Calcium ions to enter, if one add spermidine, then the pore through which Calcium ions flow in remains stuck open.  This destroys the cell.  This is worse in the female brain. When it comes to alcohol, sex matters.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Dr. Philip Grossi
Monday, 23 August 2010

OCD is a common, often debilitating, psychiatric disorder that shows improvement about fifty percent of the time, but is rarely fully resolved.  The core of the treatment for the last twenty-some years has been serotonergic agents such as the SSRIs (Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, Lexapro, Luvox, and Paxil) and the SRI, clomipramine. Due to inadequate clinical response, augmentation is frequently employed using the atypical antipsychotics which are dopamine/serotonergic agents.  The marginal response to treatment as well as its often disabling impact has motivated  many researchers and treating psychiatrists to look for alternatives that would produce more robust treatment results.

illustration to obsessive compulsive disorder blogIn the February 2010 issue of Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, Stewart and colleagues reported on the use of Memantine augmentation in 22 of 44 patients.  They found evidence for the effectiveness of Memantine augmentation. It is a glutaminergic agent.  There have also been reports that riluzole (Rilutek) which also effects glutamate metabolism, has been an effective augmenting agent. 

One of the co-authors with Stewart was Nicholas Dodman who is a veterinarian at Tufts University School of Veterinary medicine. Having a veterinarian as a co-author on this article shows that someone is thinking outside the box in that they must be considering an animal model for a psychiatric illness.  Dodman and colleagues published an article, "Pharmacologic Treatment of Equine Self-Mutilation Syndrome,"  in Journal of Applied Research in Veterinary Medicine  in 2004.  In that study the authors recruited eight flank-biting horses with equine self-mutilation syndrome (ESMS), a condition thought to be similar to Tourette's syndrome in humans.  They used ten different drugs which either stimulated or inhibited central opioid, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin neurotransmitter systems. The opioid antagonist, naltrexone, and the serotonin agonist, buspirone, as well as a dopamine blocker and the alpha-2 antagonist all produced reductions in these behaviors which were videotaped and counted. The manipulation of these various neurotransmitter systems in horses with ESMS alter the frequency of behavioral expressions that are similar to what one would expect in humans.

Dodman and colleagues have also reported on some additional work on 92 Doberman pinschers with the canine compulsive disorder of pica and flank sucking (FS) and blanket sucking BS).  These behaviors appear in early social maturity and are often precipitated by stress.  This looks like obsessive-compulsive behavior.  DNA was genotyped.  They found that a variant of the gene for a protein called cadherin-2 (neural cadherin) was over-represented in extremely compulsive Dobermans. 

This type of work represents a shift in thinking about psychiatric disorders.  Psychiatric researchers have sought to create animal models before with knockout and knockin mice, as referred to in a prior blog, but looking at an animal that presents behaviors that look like or suggest human behaviors is difficult to get one's head around.  Dodman and his group contend that looking at animals with behavioral traits is very promising indeed.  He believes that the behaviors are often instincts that have gone to excess,e.g., grooming gone overboard feather pulling), licking gone to excess (compulsive paw licking), gathering run wild (hoarding). Dr. Elaine Ostrander (who was on the team that found that variation in one gene - IGF-1, which codes for a protein hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1 - is very strongly associated with small stature across all dog breeds studied) is the lead investigator on a study of spinning (severe tail chasing) in bull terriers.  Dodman thinks that this study is very promising because this breed also manifests asocial and withdrawn behavior, episodes of explosive aggression, and seizures.  If cadherin is further implicated, we will really be onto something big.