Beyond the Headlines: What to look out for when reading a scientific paper.

Yesterday, an interesting study appeared on my Twitter timeline: it explored the attitudes of male college students towards women when investigating whether they would identify an intent into forcing sexual intercourse on a woman, and whether they would classify this as rape or not (Edwards, Bradshaw & Hinsz, 2014; link will be provided in the reference section). The purpose of the study was to gather an understanding of the motivation behind rape, and perhaps provide a stepping stone into the development of a sexual assault prevention method. It was the first study of its kind and had a relatively small sample size; 73 participants in total. From this, 13 participants appeared to endorse the intention to use force, but did not describe this as rape, and 10 participants endorsed both intention to use force and rape itself. Although it is an understatement to say that I feel disgusted that there was any one such response, it should be remembered that this sample is hardly generalizable to the larger population.

Given that the study addresses issues that are being widely discussed on social network platforms (such as the concept of “rape-culture”), it is hardly surprising that popular online news websites generated an article on the subject quite promptly (http://www.buzzfeed.com/rossalynwarren/a-third-of-male-students-in-a-new-study-say-theyd-rape-a-wom). It was not long before this started circulating the social networks, sparking shock and horror at its outlandish, eye-catching headline “A Third of Male Students Say They’d Rape a Woman If There Were No Consequences, a Study Reveals”. You can hear the increasing thrum of outrage from the masses right now, if you listen closely enough. Don’t forget that this headline is designed to pull in as many readers as possible; this small study hardly speaks for all male students out there. This blog post is not going to be about Edwards et al., (2014) article, or even this particular Buzzfeed one. I’m not here to discuss how the media often misinterpret scientific research, thus twisting the findings (although Ben Goldacre has a very good chapter on this in his book, Bad Science). However, it will hopefully outline some components that you should look at in such studies before you take everything they tell you as truth.

Firstly, what is the rationale behind the study? Why have the researchers decided to undertake this work and how has previous work inspired their aims? This requires you to read more than the abstract of the paper. I’m not telling you to look into every single citation that the authors have referenced; although it can be beneficial to look into how relevant these are to determine that the investigators aren’t trying to increase their references in order to make the study look better. Do read the introduction section thoroughly and come to grips with the concepts that it explains. It is equally important to find out if the researchers are looking into this out of their own interests, or if they are working for a company that may bias their interpretation of the findings. For example, a study undertaken by scientists who work for a drug company is hardly going to say that the drug is useless and shouldn’t be touched by consumers.

Secondly, the participants section; who are they, how many is there and why did they partake? Generally, psychology studies recruit a WEIRD sample; that is they are western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (Heinrich, Heine & Norenzayan, 2010). In short, they are college students: an easy sample for researchers to get their hands on. It should be noted that this may not be the most representative population to conduct research on. They usually undergo the studies to gain either credit for their course or for a financial reimbursement. The amount of subjects is what really counts here: the larger the sample, the more applicable the results are to the general public. It’s important to be careful when looking into this as subjects can drop out or withdraw their data at any time. This means a study may say that it had 100 participants, but 40 could have dropped out due to a chronic stomach bug and this wouldn’t be mentioned until further down in the results section. Keep your eyes peeled for these differences; it happens with great regularity.

Now, look at the study’s methods. What tests were used? How appropriate were they to the investigation? What were the controls? It is important to understand how the tests work and what they are used to assess. You are hardly going to give credit to a study using the Doors and People test to investigate executive function in Parkinson’s Disease patients (although the murky definition of executive function is another rant entirely). Controls are equally important to pay attention to; you want to make sure the researchers attempted to eliminate as many confounding factors as they could. After all, you don’t want a study that states A equals C because of B, when it could actually be because of D or E, or any other letter of the alphabet.

Finally, we arrive at the results and discussion sections of the paper. How well do these to tie together? The discussion should reflect the results accurately. I’m not going to go too much into the important aspects of statistics, but look at what results came out as significant and reflect what that could mean. This is what the authors should have done to reach their conclusions in the discussion section. How well does the discussion tie their findings to previous research? Significant or not, results should always either support and possibly expand on previous studies, or contradict them. Do the authors address the limitations of the study? These are important, because they let us know what should be improved upon for future research and allow us to know how wary we should be of the findings.

This can be arduous, I’m aware. You might be reading a 90 page paper and would prefer to scan through it as quickly as possible just to get it over and done with. But paying attention and striving to understand the papers you are reading can save you the hours you can’t get back, chasing the wrong line of research. As the saying goes, “a stitch in time saves nine”.

References

Edwards, S. R., Bradshaw, K. A., & Hinsz, V. B. (2014). Denying Rape but Endorsing Forceful Intercourse: Exploring Differences Among Responders.Violence and Gender, 1(4), 188-193. (http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/vio.2014.0022)

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world?. Behavioral and brain sciences, 33(2-3), 61-83.

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Trapped Thoughts: Consciousness In A Vegetative State

In the final year of my undergraduate degree in psychology, I came across Owen et al’s (2006) article, “Detecting awareness in a vegetative state”. This research sparked my interest and had a hugely inspiring effect on my academic direction; it was certainly a contributing factor to my pursuit of a career in neuroscience.

This case study involves a 23-year-old woman who suffered from severe traumatic brain injury, who received the clinical diagnosis of a vegetative state. The researchers conducted a fMRI study to investigate the patient’s neural responses to spoken sentences. Activation was observed in the middle and superior temporal gyri. However, due to the nature of the experiment, these results could not decisively determine awareness in the patient, as studies have previously shown that such aspects of human cognition can occur even in an unconscious state.

A second fMRI study was conducted in order to assess consciousness in the patient. She was given spoken instructions for two mental imagery tasks: to imagine playing tennis and to imagine walking around her home. During the tennis task, her supplementary motor cortex showed significant activation while her parahippompal gyrus, the posterior parietal cortex and the lateral premotor cortex were activated during the spatial navigation task. These responses were concurrent with those of the control group. Not only did this study demonstrate that the patient understood the spoken instructions and could follow them, it also implied that she intended to engage in this activities. This was a compelling finding, as it holds implications for the criteria of clinical diagnosis of a vegetative state and the question of possible communication with vegetative and minimally conscious patients.

Research into the investigation of consciousness in vegetative states has continued, which can be seen from the results of Chennu et al.’s (2014) article just a few months ago. This study used EEG and a branch of mathematics called “graph theory” to investigate activity in the brain of 32 vegetative and minimally conscious patients in comparison to healthy controls. This research revealed that there are networks in the brain of healthy controls and some vegetative patients that support awareness. The patients that such networks were observed in had shown neural activity during neuroimaging tasks, such as imagining to play tennis. These results once again demonstrate the need to re-evaluate the method of diagnosis for vegetative state and provides a technique that is less expensive and more easily administered than fMRI.

I was reminded of these articles and the importance of research in this area today when this story appeared on my Twitter feed: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2015/01/09/376084137/trapped-in-his-body-for-12-years-a-man-breaks-free?utm_campaign=storyshare&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_medium=social. It is often forgotten that clinical subjects in science are people who have or who had lives, families, friends, hopes and ambitions. This heartrending piece presents a more human, less analytical reason for such research to be funded and conducted. We should be striving towards making cases such as Martin a myth, not reality.

References

Owen, A. M., Coleman, M. R., Boly, M., Davis, M. H., Laureys, S., & Pickard, J. D. (2006). Detecting awareness in the vegetative state. Science, 313(5792), 1402-1402.

Chennu, S., Finoia, P., Kamau, E., Allanson, J., Williams, G. B., Monti, M. M., … & Bekinschtein, T. A. (2014). Spectral signatures of reorganised brain networks in disorders of consciousness. PLoS computational biology, 10(10), e1003887.

The excuse of pathology: ethical considerations for the investigation of psychopathology and other disorders.

Neuroimaging techniques continue to become more advanced, and thus allow us to derive more information about the brain. This has permitted an opening into research on psychopathology, which has taken the media’s interest (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-15386740). However, researchers have also been investigating possible underlying pathologies for pedophilia and psychiatric disorders (Schiffer, Peschel, Gizewski, Forsting, Leygraf, Schedlowski & Krueger, 2007; Andreason, 1988). Putting aside the scientific issues with such claims, this article will attempt to put forward two pressing ethical issues with the discovery of such pathologies, and how such questions might be answered. The two issues raised here will be confidentiality and responsibility.

First, the issue of confidentiality will be looked at from the hypothetical standpoint that such pathologies may have demonstrated both validity and scientific rigor. Given that approximately 10% of neuroimaging studies discover incidental findings (IFs) such as tumours, it is likely that IFs would increase in prevalence when associated with these kinds of pathologies (The Royal College of Radiologists, 2011). This issue then becomes two-fold: should researchers allow the individuals to know about their abnormalities, and should they inform authorities of the potential risk of such individuals? Informing individuals will be discussed in more detail below (Fuchs, 2006). Informing authorities breaches the confidentiality of the participant. This becomes a debate between the public’s right to safety and the individual’s right to freedom. Taking pedophilia as an example,the issue of confidentiality is minimal with convicted pedophiles, due to the various equivalents of Megan’s law (Canli & Amin, 2002). But should a non-criminal with this pathology be treated as those convicted; should they be forced to register or inform their employers? This issue needs to be addressed by the scientific community at large (Glannon, 2006). There should be a consensus determining the significance of such scans, and guidelines pertaining to each population at risk implemented.

In terms of the issue of responsibility, two problems may arise here: informing a participant of their pathology before they’ve exhibited at-risk behaviour, and the discovery of such pathologies after they committed a crime. Informing the participants may lead to self-fulfilling prophecies and diminished responsibilities, increasing the likelihood of such behaviour (Glannon, 2006). Hand-in-hand with this, the discovery of pathologies after a crime has been committed may take away the individual’s responsibility. We don’t blame Phineas Gage’s bad behaviour on himself, but rather on the injury caused to his brain, so how can we blame a person with a neurological disposition to such behaviour for acting as such (Farah, 2006)? A proposed answer for the former solution is directing such individuals towards treatments or therapies that can help them overcome such pre-dispositions. The latter could be dealt with by treatment in a high-security mental health facility rather than imprisonment. Although the underlying pathology may not be subject to change, the tendency towards such dangerous behaviours could be inhibited through treatment.

The ethical issues surrounding the discovery of these kinds of pathologies in the brain are complex, and no single answer appears to be the right fit. However, in the words of neuroscientist, Joseph LeDoux (2003): “It is testimony to the progress being made that these questions need to be asked” (p.221).

References

Andreasen, N. C. (1988). Brain imaging: applications in psychiatry. Science,239(4846), 1381-1388.

Canli, T., & Amin, Z. (2002). Neuroimaging of emotion and personality: Scientific evidence and ethical considerations. Brain and cognition50(3), 414-431.

Farah, M. J. (2005). Neuroethics: the practical and the philosophical. Trends in cognitive sciences, 9(1), 34-40.

Fuchs, T. (2006). Ethical issues in neuroscience. Current opinion in Psychiatry,19(6), 600- 607.

Glannon, W. (2006). Neuroethics. Bioethics20(1), 37-52.

LeDoux, J. E. (2003). Synaptic self: How our brains become who we are (p.221). Penguin.

Schiffer, B., Peschel, T., Paul, T., Gizewski, E., Forsting, M., Leygraf, N., Schedlowski, M., & Krueger, T. H. (2007). Structural brain abnormalities in the frontostriatal systemand cerebellum in pedophilia. Journal of psychiatric research41(9), 753-762.

The Royal College of Radiologists. (2011). Management of incidental findings detected during research imaging. London: The Royal College of Radiologists.