27 September 2011

A shock-relieving talk on Shock Treatment

       Majority of us keep a horrifying picture about Shock treatment used for the cure of mental illnesses. The bad credit goes mainly to the movies that mislead us and give a feeling that it is some kind of torture or punishment given to the most violent of mental patients.
       So, here we are going to have a talk on the same Shock Treatment that I hope will untether you off some misconceptions.
       'Shock treatment' is just a nickname of this method. Psychiatrists call it as 'Electroconvulsive Therapy' or simply ECT. It will be interesting to know that ECT is the first discovered meaningful treatment method in psychiatry (for movies have always picturized it as a last resort). For the sake of a little history, there was no meaningful treatment for mental illness around just 70 years ago. Von Meduna, a Hungarian psychiatrist, observed that epilepsy and schizophrenia rarely coexist. Even if they did, the seizures (or fits, loosely speaking, the sudden movement of muscles) associated with epilepsy reduced the severity of psychosis. This lead him to develop a treatment for psychosis: to induce seizures artificially using drugs. But use of drugs had many limitations because there was no considerable control over the way seizures occurred. Thereafter, Carletti and Bini, two Italian psychiatrists discovered that electricity can be used to induce seizures in a much controllable way. In 1938, the first experiment of ECT was done on humans, to be found a great success.
A psychotron used to control ECT
       ECT is not at all a cruel treatment. Before applying ECT to a patient, he is always undergone a 'fitness test' including EEG, and X-ray. To those who think it is a torture, ECT is never conducted on a conscious patient but is always given after an anesthesia. That means you don't feel any pain at all. Also drugs are given to prevent very violent movement of muscles during seizures. While doing all these pre-ECT steps, the patient is allowed to breath pure oxygen (a process called hyperventillation). The amount of current passed  is only around 0.5-0.8 ampere and that is for less than 4 seconds, using an apparatus called psychotron. This current never reaches the brain. It just flows through the scalp tissues and so there is no 'struck by lightning' type effects as we see in movies. This current can stimulate brain activity. It is this stimulated brain activity and NOT the electrical stimulus that causes the sudden muscular movements. When the effect of anesthesia wears off, the patient would wake up comfortably.
ECT produce recovery faster than drugs. It is also used in drug-resistant subjects (that is if patient does not respond to medicine) It is not necessarily meant for only the very violent and uncooperative patients (for such patients ECT will be the only way) but is also prescribed for very depressed patients. Psychiatrists say that patients who have received ECT find it less frightening than going to a dentist!
       One more interesting fact: despite being a 70 year old and globally used method, no one knows exactly how ECT works in human body!

21 September 2011

Polysomnography: Measuring sleep!

Today let us talk about another interesting term, Polysomnography. Those who already know that the Latin word 'somnus' means sleep, can guess what polysomnography deals with. Yes, it is a standard procedure to evaluate sleep, mainly for the cure of sleep disorders.
Well, when I say 'measuring sleep' what actually are we measuring? Polysomnography is a multi-parametric test (means it measures different parameters connected to the sleep activity, lest you are frightened by the term multi-parametric) Mainly there are three parts in your body that responds directly to your sleep; brain, eyes and muscles. The study of activity in these three parts constitute the core of polysomnography. Measurements are carried out by placing electrodes on specific parts of the body and measuring the voltage change associated with the corresponding activity.
Now let us have a close look at the core parameters:
Brain activity:
It is studied by the ordinary EEG (Electro Encephalography) technique. It is based on measuring the bioelectric aactivity of brain by placing electrodes on the scalp of the person in sleep. EEG will look like a polygrah, the one you see in a seismogram record of earth quake. Like a random scribble made by a pen. But by looking at EEG, the researcher can understand the various stages of the person's sleep.
Eye movements:
It is studied by a technique called Electro Oculography (EOG). It is based on a rarely known fact that the front part of our eye called Cornea is electrically positive with respect to its hind part Retina. This voltage will obviously change when eye moves left, right, up or down. EOG is based on the measurement of this voltage, thereby giving an idea about the eye-movements.
Muscle activity:
This is studied by a technique called Electro Myogram (EMG). The movements of our muscles are a result of rapid electrical activity within the muscle tissues. EMG measures the voltage change associated with it. In polysomnography, EMG electrodes are usually placed over the chin muscles.

A sample polysomnogram
Along with these many similar activities in the body can also be studied for a very detailed analysis, three of them being  breathing, heart rate and contraction of leg muscles.

19 September 2011

QWERTY Keyboard: Why is it the way it is?

       If you are reading this, surely you have a keyboard in your front. I assume you are using a QWERTY keyboard, which is the most common layout of keyboard.(If you don't know what QWERTY means, it is the name of the way in which keys are arranged in your keyboard. The name obviously comes from the first six letters of the top row of alphabets in your keyboard.)
       Now my question is, do you know why keys are arranged in some seemingly random way rather than in an order? I had asked this question myself and to others, and frankly the answer I could end up in was 'this way makes typing more fast and efficient'. But how? I got many explanations from many and even from myself (rather fit-to-reality type explanations!) all of them being supportive to the making-typing-faster concept.
       But actually, fact is just the reverse. QWERTY layout was invented to make people type slowly, and not fast! Yes it is. This layout was designed by Christopher Sholes in 1874 as part of his design of the first typewriter for Remington & Sons. Obviously, the first typewriter was purely a mechanical device in which pressing of a key would cause a bar to strike against the paper through an inked ribbon. In that machine there was a problem: if you type too fast the bars corresponding to different keys would collide with each other and thereby would jam the machine. Sholes found out an easy remedy for this. He just placed the most commonly used letters in hard to reach positions! And there it was, the QWERTY layout. The Remington typewriters became so popular that even after the invention of electronic typewriters, the Sholes' layout had to be followed as such because people had got used to it. That is how this layout became a universally accepted standard for keyboard.

17 September 2011

@ at 'Did You Know' !

     @ is one of the most common symbols used nowadays. @ became so popular after the invention of e-mail. But how many of us know the standard name of that symbol? Alas! I was sad to know that @ symbol has no standard name! You may be calling it as 'at symbol' (so do I). But there are dozens of other names for @ that reflects similes for the symbol.  Examples are apestaart (Dutch for "monkey's tail"), snabel (Danish for "elephant's trunk"), kissanhnta (Finnish for "cat's tail"), klammeraffe (German for "hanging monkey") etc.
     Before it became a standard symbol in e-mail addresses, @ was used as 'at the rate' for referring to cost or weight of things (e.g. Books @ $5 each). It seems the actual origin of the symbol is still unknown. Some evidences show that before printing presses were invented people who made copies of books used '@' as a short form of 'at'. Another story tells that @ was used as an abbreviation of 'amphora', an old unit of measurement. Anyway solid records are there to show that the symbol @ was used even in 14th century.

11 September 2011

The Science of Falling in Love

"Love is a temporary disease curable by marriage"
Let me begin by apologizing to those who are much passionate about their lovers and associated fancies, for rationalizing their feeling. How many of you have thought about the fact that the much-praised, much-glorified, much-romanticized thing called 'falling in love' is basically chemical in nature? Now let us have a talk on the science of falling in love:
According to Dr. Helen Fischer, an anthropologist and researcher in Rutgers University, USA, love has three distinct stages namely
1. Lust
2. Attraction and
3. Attachment
       If these three stages of your love happen with the same person, you have a very strong bond.
       After seeing the meaning of 'lust' in your English dictionary, don't misinterpret the first stage. Lust is your 'desire to experience love' and for most of you people, that stage might be long gone during your teenage days. For your romantic partner, you may or may not feel lust, both being normal according to Dr. Lisa Diamond (Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol 13 no. 3) Lust is driven by the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone.
       Attraction is what we refer to as 'love' in common language and what we write stories and songs upon. This stage is a playground of a large number of intense chemical reactions. Most often, this begins in the form of infatuation- an unbearable attraction towards someone. This stage is carried out by a virtual explosion of a few neurochemicals that are similar to the stress hormone adrenaline. Yes, it means a pleasant stress: your knees shake, palms sweat, heartbeat and pulse shoot up, you breath heavily and so on. This is caused by the release of a natural chemical called Phenylethylamine (PEA, nicknamed 'the molecule of love'). The release of PEA can even be triggered by very simple things like meeting of eyes or touching of hands. (Since the sense of men are more visual in nature, it is observed that men get love-stricken easily.) Assisted by the chemicals like dopamine and norepinephrin, PEA creates a state of emergency in your body! At that time your condition will be no different from a drug addict. You get addicted to these chemicals. It seems your entire existence depends on the source of their release, that is the person who triggered it. As long as these chemicals are there in your body, you feel energized or even floating on air and you can talk with your partner for hours on end without fatigue. Put the blame on these chemicals, all the attributes of social obligations, other relations, sense, sensibility etc you had kept in mind for matching get neglected and you fall in love with a person without any of those qualifications. Literally your mind soars with these chemicals.
       Researchers in the University College of London discovered that people in love show lower levels of serotonin similar to the case of those affected by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. That explains why people in love often get obsessed by their partner. Researchers also found that the neural circuits associated with the way one assess others are suppressed. That means your way of assessment get tampered and you tend to idealize your partner and you don't see any flaws in her or him! 
       Attachment, actually, is the stage of real love. You enter that stage after passing the fantasy world of attraction. Feelings of passionate love in the attraction stage (or the chemicals responsible for that) are not long lasting. They diminish after 3 or 4 years. After that, suddenly your lover has faults and maybe you complain that she or he has changed a lot. But actually they might not have changed at all! Only thing is, you have started seeing him rationally without the blinding chemicals. Thank to the hormones Oxytocin, Vasopressin and Endorphin, otherwise your relation will come to end soon. These chemicals are released when having sex. Oxytocin is called cuddling hormone and it promotes the need to be physically held, have close contact with the mate and makes both the partners more caring. Endorphins are chemicals that make a relationship steadier, intimate, dependable, warm and a great sharing experience. They do not induce an 'emotional high' as the PEA does, but induce calmness and stability. Hence they are the reason why people stay married. They trigger grief on a spouse’s death or long separation. Vasopressin is another hormone responsible for long-term relations and also for the monogamy. Vasopressin helps you cling to your partner, even in spite of small adjustment problems. According to Dr. Fischer, Oxytocin and Vasopressin interfere with the pathways of Dopamine and norepinephrine thus explaining why passionate love fades as attachment grows. Endorphins are body's natural pain killers. They also produce a general sense of well-being, including feeling soothed, peaceful and secure.
        Next time when you are enjoying your time with your partner, thank these chemicals for the pleasure part.