Manipulative Statistics

Let me start with a quote from a web page for a reputable skin care brand:

“How does Olay Professional work?
Years of genomic research were focused on developing a comprehensive understanding of the gene activities which affect aging. A comparison of the gene activities in younger and older skin showed that skin aging is multi-factorial, and clearly suggested that a comprehensive approach is needed to truly affect the skin aging process. This genomics understanding could then inspire a range of formulations for Olay Professional; using ingredients trusted by world-leading skin experts and designed to help improve the appearance of the skin. The result of this breakthrough collaboration is a potent range of products” (Olay Professional, 2011)

Their explanation of how this product has been tested, by this statement, seems a little ambiguous. That’s not to say that they have not performed any sort of product research, but would you not want to advertise these incredible results that show your product working. However, because it sounds Scientific, we may be inclined to believe their claims, or just overlook the lack of supporting evidence. – Who knows what ‘Genomic Research’ is anyway? Or that ageing is ‘multi-factorial’? This confusion tactic is employed by many companies to help us to trust them in what they do; if it sounds trustworthy then it must be. This same tactic is often employed when releasing research statistics; particularly in quantitative research and correlative data. Personally my favourite example would be the infamous 0.1% of bacteria which cannot be killed by any soap on the market. However if I were to use a better example I would say: If a researcher were to be employed by a popular high street retailer to conduct a survey to show what percentage of the population chose to shop in their stores, they would most likely use a survey, or questionnaire method of collecting the results. For their company to get the best results they would chose to take this survey in the best location, maybe on the same street as which their store is located, or from outside their shop front. They would also tend towards general questions, such as ‘Have you ever shopped at…?’ This isn’t to say that they regularly shop there, will return or even enjoyed the experience, but for the goal of this survey this doesn’t matter. If they then questioned 100 people, to whom 80 answered ‘Yes’, then this would allow them to report that  80% of people they asked shop at their store. Now considering there are around 61 Million people living in the UK, (Rogers, 2010) that is a lot of people who shop with this retail chain; somewhat questionable as this information would have been gained from such a small sample.

However it’s not just large companies and high street retailers that use this method, Psychologists and other Scientists will all use this method of presenting their findings to push their thoughts. Maybe even unknowingly (Experimenter Bias), after all, everyone wants to be right the first time. A few statistically proven statements I found around the internet are: Homemakers are happier in their marriages than career women (Wilcox & Nock, 2006); Women are not advancing in science and technology fields because their brains aren’t wired for it (Nettle, 2007); And Neanderthals died off because men and women played equal roles as hunters (Premo, 2006). Each of these statements has their own research and findings to prove what they are claiming, but how reliable is it?

While they do offer some good research background in their papers, these hypotheses by themselves appear to be very drastic statements. So consider my final points when looking at research and advertisements; how controversial is the statement? Who is writing it? Is this person well known, or even who they say they are? What qualifies them to make such a statement? Are they willing to show you evidence of the research behind the statement? Does the research cover a good sample? I guess in short, take nothing for granted and trust no results that appear invalid or unreliable.

Before you go: A footnote…
I contacted the company behind my first quote to request information on the research to back up their statements. I received a reply shortly after explaining:

“…I am sorry to inform you that we are unable to help as we have no information relating to your query.
However, I can suggest that you revisit us at http://www.pg.com for information about P&G brands…” Make of that what you will, but please note, I am not accusing the company of misrepresentation.

References

Nettle, D. (2007). Empathizing and systemizing: What are they, and what do they contribute to our understanding of psychological sex differences? British Journal of Psychology, 237-255.

Olay Professional. (2011). Science of Olay Professional. Retrieved 03 09, 2012, from Olay Professional: http://www.olay.co.uk/professional/science.php

Premo, L. S. (2006). Patchiness and Prosociality: Modeling the Evolution and Archeology or Plio-Pleistocene Hominin Food Sharing. USA: The University of Arizona.

Rogers, S. (2010, 09 21). Data Blog. Retrieved 03 09, 2012, from The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/sep/21/uk-population-local-authority

Wilcox, B. W., & Nock, L. S. (2006). What’s Love Got To Do With It? Equality, Equity,Commitment and Women’s Marital Quality. Virginia, US: The University of Virginia.


Altruism – Capable of learning?

A new study is soon to be launched into the effects, if any, of meditation and likewise on altruistic behaviours. The study, to be conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison will use fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to see the effects in the brain when acting on altruistic behaviours. They aim to see if the practice of such meditation can influence a person’s behaviour to promote altruistic acts (Rattue, 2012).

Let’s first consider what Altruism actually is. First described as the ‘self-sacrifice for the benefit of others’ by Auguste Comte in 1851, its given meaning was considered to be a rather extreme point of view. The now much preferred meaning given to Altruism would be a ‘behaviour that promotes the survival chances of others at a cost to one’s own’, and is used mainly amongst today’s scientific community (Altruists.org).

However some would suggest that Altruism is not at all possible and such acts exist as a means of benefiting one’s self. I refer to of course, as well as many others, Cialdini’s negative state relief model. Cialdini suggests that we in our minds weigh up the positives and negatives of helping someone and furthermore would only consider helping if there were no other alternative. Therefore only if the person is feeling a stress for observing someone that needs help and will only help if they feel that stress can’t be relieved without helping (C. Daniel Batson, 1989).

Negative State Relief Model

Cialdini's Negative State Relief Model

Contrary to this, some new research into altruism has shown that there were differences shown on an fMRI scan between brain activity when acting out altruistically and egoistically. This study, conducted at Duke University in 2007, invited 45 participants and observed them play a computer game where at points they would be rewarded monetarily for themselves, or for a chosen charity. fMRI scans taken as these activities took place showed that although they were expecting activity in the brains reward centres, they also found that another part of the brain was involved; this part of the brain, the pSTC (posterior superior temporal cortex), also appeared to be rather sensitive to the difference between acts of altruism and egoism (Science Daily, 2007).

Which brings us back nicely to look at the study this article discusses. The team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison expect to see a difference between altruistic and egoistic acts as in the Duke University study, however they also plan to change a person’s predisposition towards acting altruistically by introducing them to techniques such as ‘compassion meditation’. Using a combination of $1.7 million, more than 1000 participants, some randomly activated voice recordings and an fMRI scan, they hope to observe a correlation between acts of altruism and corresponding brain activity (Rattue, 2012).

Although with all things considered, it would seem that this study is a little far-fetched. That is to say that for a start, we cannot even be sure that there is a difference in the mind between altruistic and egoistic behaviours and for something so randomly placed and unpredictable, can it be measured effectively? How could this benefit society? We could all start recommending that people spend some time meditating on a regular basis to help improve social happiness, but further than this I do not see much else to propose from the results. It would be my opinion that this huge amount of money could be better spent in a more significant area of research.

Altruists.org. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.altruists.org/about/altruism/

C. Daniel Batson, J. G. (1989). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Negative-State Relief and the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis, 6, 922-933.

Rattue, P. (2012, 02 04). Does A Lab-Measured Compassionate Brain Fare Well In Real Life?. Retrieved from Medical News Today: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/241161.php

Science Daily. (2007, 01 21). Activation Of Brain Region Predicts Altruism. Retrieved 02 02, 2012, from Science Daily: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/01/070121162756.htm


Lighting up the Pathways

The neural pathways that is… I’ll explain in a moment.

Electrode Testing Neurons

But first, lets think back to 1991 when scientists from the NIND (National Institute of Neurological Disorders) invented a brand new way of measuring the chemical changes happening within the brains neurotransmitters. Using a tiny, ultra-sensitive electrode they could measure the release of catecholamine’s (A type of hormone) produced by the neurons to observe how specific drugs would affect the release of the hormone (NIND, 1991). While at the time this was seen to be a revolutionary view and a huge advancement in the testing of drugs, it had its draw backs. These electrodes needed to be attached to the neurons in order to measure their output and doing so would kill off the cells rather quickly. This method also only allowed for a single reading, failing to create a spatial map of how the signals would propagate (Harvard University, 2011).

Deep Sea Glow Worm

Now let me explain where light comes into this. If you have watched an underwater animal documentary on television then you may have noticed several species of fish and the like which let off a fluorescent glow, deep below the surface water. These animals perform this amazing function by using a protein (Either GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein) or aequorin) and would normally use it as a form of camouflage (Mills, 1999). This protein has successfully been cloned and reproduced for several biochemical studies, but the most recent that we are going to look at is the research led by Loeb at Harvard University.

His research looks at using a gene involved in creating this protein that when exposed to an electrical charge will become fluorescent, allowing researchers to trace the propagation of signals through a brain cell. To achieve this, the protein must first be attached to a genetically modified virus and then attached to a cell; once infected the cell will then begin to create the protein by itself. Once complete the protein will glow in places which there is an electrical charge flowing through it, showing us not only which neurons are being activated, but the paths taken between them. Using this information we can also track changes in the pathways and the creation of new ones, creating a spatial map of operation (Harvard University, 2011).

Neurons Reacting to Electricity

This type of research will open up the doors to many possibilities, but for the moment the focus would seem to be on testing the efficiency of various drugs on a cell; where before this would have taken a while to observe, only being able to test one or ten compounds at a time, we are now able to test hundreds or even thousands at a time. This will even provide us with the ability to test the same drugs under different conditions and is expected to increase the throughput for the testing of new drugs. It is also expected the it will open up new possibilities in the research of heart disease and depression, as well as numerous other areas; particularly the ability to create genetically identical stem cells and study the difference in the neural pathways between a patient with a genetic predisposition to a particular condition.

The References:

Harvard University. (2011, 12 1). Neurons Created That Light Up As They Fire. Retrieved 12 02, 2011, from Medical News Today: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/238439.php

Mills, C. E. (1999, 01 11). Aquorea. Retrieved 12 02, 2011, from Washington University: http://faculty.washington.edu/cemills/Aequorea.html

NIND. (1991, 06 17). Newly developed electrode records neurotransmitter release from a single cell. Retrieved 02 12, 2011, from National institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/news_and_events/news_articles/pressrelease_electrode_061791.htm


Erasing Memories?

A group from the University of Leicester has found there is a strong relationship between a specific protein produced by the brain, and stress levels. Through observing the ‘thin’ and ‘mushroom-like’ parts of nerve cells (Responsible for learning and memory) they have discovered that it is possible to adjust memories – Possibly making those that are stressful much less, stressful. This discovery came about after having performed tests on mice; these tests found that those lacking this protein were much less outgoing and preferred to be alone, away from others.

This breakthrough in research is intended to allow us to control production of the protein in human brains in order to control memories, helping individuals from experiencing too much stress or anxiety after living through highly stressful situations. According to Pawlak from the University of Leicester explained that while our brains are normally able to deal with stress well, through rebuilding connections between cells – better adapting us to stress. However, in highly stressful situations this process can carry on uncontrollably and can prevent effective communication between cells. The basic idea for treatment with regard to this discovery is to control the amount of lipocalin-2, slightly increasing its creation to lessen the stress of stressful events.

So far this test has only been run on mice in laboratory conditions and they are now looking at a future of furthering the tests on humans. When the mice were tested, they removed lipocalin-2 from their brains and exposed them to stressful situations. From this they could see that the Mushroom spines, responsible for memory, were formed much quicker than normal, indicating a much stronger memory of the event. Now testing on mice is one thing, their brain is tiny relative to humans. Could testing this theory on humans have severe consequences? The prospect of fiddling with memories to make them more stressful could have the potential to mask memories completely or maybe even destroy those which were not intended to be destroyed. The testing of this theory on humans would seem to be very risky, especially at such an early stage of research.

 

References:

University of Leicester (2011, October 9). Brainstudy reveals stress code. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 17, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111003151826.htm


A Good, Reliable Sample – Possible?

Just what is sampling?

As psychologists we use different sampling methods to find trends within a population. Testing the whole population can be both expensive and time consuming, so for this reason it is much easier to test a representative sample of the population. From the results of testing this sample we can make an assumption across the rest of the population and progress our research from there.

 

So what can go wrong?

Well for a start we have to look at ‘sampling biases. If the participants were not selected randomly, they may have been chosen with the aim of generating the best results relevant to the test – this can seriously undermine the validity of the test. For this reason it could be said we should aim to use a ‘random sampling method’
However!
While more reliable in one respect, it generates the issue. As the participants are chosen at random, the minority of the population could be chosen entirely and outweigh the majority in the sample. For example, if we were to look at the amount of people with a learning difficulty in a small town of 100 people, we could end up with a sample of 30 with a learning difficulty and 20 without – Whereas true results should show 30 with learning difficulties and 70 without. This problem can be helped by selecting a much larger sample, but it will still exist, albeit to a lesser extent.

 

But what about individual differences?

Everyone is different. This is something we should be taking into account as Psychologists – After all, it’s what our work as all about. But does this mean that the results from a tested sample cannot apply to the rest of our population? Well, in my view yes and no. We can say that there is a ‘good chance’ our results will also apply across the rest of the population, but we cannot confirm this to 100%.

 

Okay, but that’s just a sample. What if we tested the whole population?

While testing a whole population would be both time consuming and expensive, we could gain some much more accurate information from the results. However, the problem would exist again in that we could not necessarily apply these results across any more than the population tested. Simply put, to apply results to the rest of the world, or even one country, we would have to take into account individual differences and cultural biases on a much larger scale.

 

So is there any point?

Yes. Even though all of the above seems to run the idea of sampling a population into the ground, the act of sampling does give us a very good idea of how to progress our research. Sampling helps us to understand trends in a population and points us in the right direction for further research; without it we would be pretty much ‘stabbing in the dark’ to find a conclusion.


Brain Research – Why Not?

Could You Give Away Your Brain?

Once again, let me start this off with a quote:

“More people need to donate their brains to medical research if cures for diseases like dementia are to be found, UK scientists say”. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7813114.stm)

This is true – After all, how can we perform scientific research on something we don’t have? But would you be willing to give away your brain to science once you had passed on?

Key protein identified that moves Parkinson’s treatments a step closer – 3 October 2011
New research at the University of Oxford – part-funded by Parkinson’s UK – has identified a key protein called Nedd4 that may lead to the development of potential new treatments for Parkinson’s.”

The human brain is an amazingly complex structure, far too difficult to replicate and impossible to study closely in a living human being – at least without breaking several codes of ethical conduct. The close up study of the brain is essential to further our research in areas such as Alzheimer’s, Dementia and Autism – being just a few of the hundreds of other brain disorders out there. For us as psychologists we would have to perform identical tests across a large sample of subjects in order to achieve valid results; however there are very few brains available for research within the UK – How do we use so little to create meaningful results?

Our research leads to new trial of ‘iron removal’ drug for Parkinson’s – 12 September 2011
Exciting new research at Imperial College London Hospital is getting underway to test Deferiprone – a drug that helps remove excess iron from the body – as a new treatment for Parkinson’s.”

But why are there so few brains available to such important research? It would seem that it is mostly down to a poor awareness of the subject in general; and then some common misconceptions. I came across some interesting views while scanning through the many pages of internet, but the most used reason I found for not wanting to donate a brain was on the basis of religion. Now this is a whole subject in itself and not one I will go into with this blog. However if you wish to read some of what I was looking at, this would certainly be the most ‘interesting’ source: http://www.sciencebuzz.org/poll/would_you_donate_your_body_to_science_after_you_die

Parkinson’s UK-funded scientists grow nerve cells from skin cells – 23 August 2011
For the first time our scientists have grown new nerve cells from a person with one of the most rapidly progressing inherited forms of Parkinson’s. This exciting study has the potential to bring about a huge breakthrough in Parkinson’s research.”

Is this good enough? Should we even have to ask? In my opinion the reward for research in this area far outweighs the cost – after all, if we don’t donate it, it will either rot away in the ground or be cremated with us (Unless we opt in for Cryogenics). We have already learned so much from this type of research – a few examples of which you will notice dotted throughout this blog, but without this research we would not be able to establish a link between Dopamine and Parkinson’s disease or the relationship between brain structure and Autism. Furthermore, without being able to test possible solutions on human samples how can we possibly declare our findings are at all relevant to humans?

So back to my first question – Could you give away your brain?

And for more information on research see:
http://www.parkinsons.org.uk/
http://www.brainbankforautism.org.uk/
http://www.alzheimersresearchuk.org/

Research quotes taken from:
http://www.parkinsons.org.uk/research/research_news.aspx