Posts Tagged ‘Nature Neuroscience’


Results imply creative people are 25% more likely to carry genes that raise risk of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. But others argue the evidence is flimsy.

The ancient Greeks were first to make the point. Shakespeare raised the prospect too. But Lord Byron was, perhaps, the most direct of them all: “We of the craft are all crazy,” he told the Countess of Blessington, casting a wary eye over his fellow poets.

The notion of the tortured artist is a stubborn meme. Creativity, it states, is fuelled by the demons that artists wrestle in their darkest hours. The idea is fanciful to many scientists. But a new study claims the link may be well-founded after all, and written into the twisted molecules of our DNA.

In a large study published on Monday, scientists in Iceland report that genetic factors that raise the risk of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are found more often in people in creative professions. Painters, musicians, writers and dancers were, on average, 25% more likely to carry the gene variants than professions the scientists judged to be less creative, among which were farmers, manual labourers and salespeople.

Kari Stefansson, founder and CEO of deCODE, a genetics company based in Reykjavik, said the findings, described in the journal Nature Neuroscience, point to a common biology for some mental disorders and creativity. “To be creative, you have to think differently,” he told the Guardian. “And when we are different, we have a tendency to be labelled strange, crazy and even insane.”

The scientists drew on genetic and medical information from 86,000 Icelanders to find genetic variants that doubled the average risk of schizophrenia, and raised the risk of bipolar disorder by more than a third. When they looked at how common these variants were in members of national arts societies, they found a 17% increase compared with non-members.

The researchers went on to check their findings in large medical databases held in the Netherlands and Sweden. Among these 35,000 people, those deemed to be creative (by profession or through answers to a questionnaire) were nearly 25% more likely to carry the mental disorder variants.

Stefansson believes that scores of genes increase the risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. These may alter the ways in which many people think, but in most people do nothing very harmful. But for 1% of the population, genetic factors, life experiences and other influences can culminate in problems, and a diagnosis of mental illness.

“Often, when people are creating something new, they end up straddling between sanity and insanity,” said Stefansson. “I think these results support the old concept of the mad genius. Creativity is a quality that has given us Mozart, Bach, Van Gogh. It’s a quality that is very important for our society. But it comes at a risk to the individual, and 1% of the population pays the price for it.”

Stefansson concedes that his study found only a weak link between the genetic variants for mental illness and creativity. And it is this that other scientists pick up on. The genetic factors that raise the risk of mental problems explained only about 0.25% of the variation in peoples’ artistic ability, the study found. David Cutler, a geneticist at Emory University in Atlanta, puts that number in perspective: “If the distance between me, the least artistic person you are going to meet, and an actual artist is one mile, these variants appear to collectively explain 13 feet of the distance,” he said.

Most of the artist’s creative flair, then, is down to different genetic factors, or to other influences altogether, such as life experiences, that set them on their creative journey.

For Stefansson, even a small overlap between the biology of mental illness and creativity is fascinating. “It means that a lot of the good things we get in life, through creativity, come at a price. It tells me that when it comes to our biology, we have to understand that everything is in some way good and in some way bad,” he said.

But Albert Rothenberg, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University is not convinced. He believes that there is no good evidence for a link between mental illness and creativity. “It’s the romantic notion of the 19th century, that the artist is the struggler, aberrant from society, and wrestling with inner demons,” he said. “But take Van Gogh. He just happened to be mentally ill as well as creative. For me, the reverse is more interesting: creative people are generally not mentally ill, but they use thought processes that are of course creative and different.”

If Van Gogh’s illness was a blessing, the artist certainly failed to see it that way. In one of his last letters, he voiced his dismay at the disorder he fought for so much of his life: “Oh, if I could have worked without this accursed disease – what things I might have done.”

In 2014, Rothernberg published a book, “Flight of Wonder: an investigation of scientific creativity”, in which he interviewed 45 science Nobel laureates about their creative strategies. He found no evidence of mental illness in any of them. He suspects that studies which find links between creativity and mental illness might be picking up on something rather different.

“The problem is that the criteria for being creative is never anything very creative. Belonging to an artistic society, or working in art or literature, does not prove a person is creative. But the fact is that many people who have mental illness do try to work in jobs that have to do with art and literature, not because they are good at it, but because they’re attracted to it. And that can skew the data,” he said. “Nearly all mental hospitals use art therapy, and so when patients come out, many are attracted to artistic positions and artistic pursuits.”

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jun/08/new-study-claims-to-find-genetic-link-between-creativity-and-mental-illness

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Sleeping minds: prepare to be hacked. For the first time, conscious memories have been implanted into the minds of mice while they sleep. The same technique could one day be used to alter memories in people who have undergone traumatic events.

When we sleep, our brain replays the day’s activities. The pattern of brain activity exhibited by mice when they explore a new area during the day, for example, will reappear, speeded up, while the animal sleeps. This is thought to be the brain practising an activity – an essential part of learning. People who miss out on sleep do not learn as well as those who get a good night’s rest, and when the replay process is disrupted in mice, so too is their ability to remember what they learned the previous day.

Karim Benchenane and his colleagues at the Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution in Paris, France, hijacked this process to create new memories in sleeping mice. The team targeted the rodents’ place cells – neurons that fire in response to being in or thinking about a specific place. These cells are thought to help us form internal maps, and their discoverers won a Nobel prize last year.

Benchenane’s team used electrodes to monitor the activity of mice’s place cells as the animals explored an enclosed arena, and in each mouse they identified a cell that fired only in a certain arena location. Later, when the mice were sleeping, the researchers monitored the animals’ brain activity as they replayed the day’s experiences. A computer recognised when the specific place cell fired; each time it did, a separate electrode would stimulate brain areas associated with reward.

When the mice awoke, they made a beeline for the location represented by the place cell that had been linked to a rewarding feeling in their sleep. A brand new memory – linking a place with reward – had been formed.

It is the first time a conscious memory has been created in animals during sleep. In recent years, researchers have been able to form subconscious associations in sleeping minds – smokers keen to quit can learn to associate cigarettes with the smells of rotten eggs and fish in their sleep, for example.

Previous work suggested that if this kind of subconscious learning had occurred in Benchenane’s mice, they would have explored the arena in a random manner, perhaps stopping at the reward-associated location. But these mice headed straight for the location, suggesting a conscious memory. “The mouse develops a goal-directed behaviour to go towards the place,” says Benchenane. “It proves that it’s not an automatic behaviour. What we create is an association between a particular place and a reward that can be consciously accessed by the mouse.”

“The mouse is remembering enough abstract information to think ‘I want to go to a certain place’, and go there when it wakes up,” says neuroscientist Neil Burgess at University College London. “It’s a bigger breakthrough [than previous studies] because it really does show what the man in the street would call a memory – the ability to bring to mind abstract knowledge which can guide behaviour in a directed way.”

Benchenane doesn’t think the technique can be used to implant many other types of memories, such as skills – at least for the time being. Spatial memories are easier to modify because they are among the best understood.

His team’s findings also provide some of the strongest evidence for the way in which place cells work. It is almost impossible to test whether place cells function as an internal map while animals are awake, says Benchenane, because these animals also use external cues, such as landmarks, to navigate. By specifically targeting place cells while the mouse is asleep, the team were able to directly test theories that specific cells represent specific places.

“Even when those place cells fire in sleep, they still convey spatial information,” says Benchenane. “That provides evidence that when you’ve got activation of place cells during the consolidation of memories in sleep, you’ve got consolidation of the spatial information.”

Benchenane hopes that his technique could be developed to help alter people’s memories, perhaps of traumatic events (see “Now it’s our turn”, below).

Loren Frank at the University of California, San Francisco, agrees. “I think this is a really important step towards helping people with memory impairments or depression,” he says. “It is surprising to me how many neurological and psychiatric illnesses have something to do with memory, including schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder.”

“In principle, you could selectively change brain processing during sleep to soften memories or change their emotional content,” he adds.

Journal reference: Nature Neuroscience, doi:10.1038/nn.3970

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn27115-new-memories-implanted-in-mice-while-they-sleep.html#.VP_L9uOVquD

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.