Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Baroness Greenfield, junk neuroscience, and the dangers of video games

By Tom Chivers

Dr Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist at Cardiff University and the author of the Science Digestive blog, has kindly written the following guest post in response to yet another ill-thought-through rant from Baroness Greenfield, the former director of the Royal Institute and prominent critic of video games and the internet. It's a good thing Dr Burnett did so, because if I'd done it, it would probably have been a very short post: "Please stop talking, Baroness Greenfield. Please." Anyway, here he is:
Baroness Greenfield, the former director of the Royal Institution, has once again been holding forth about the potential damage that video games and other technological entertainments are wreaking on the brains of young people.

As a doctor of behavioural neuroscience who teaches via an online course, I have a special interest in how our brains are influenced by behaviour and technology, so the Baroness’s pronouncements were of particular fascination to me. But her view, that electronic media can damage our brains, is almost the exact opposite of my own. While some of her claims have an element of truth to them, it's aggravating to see a well-known public intellectual misuse basic facts to support outlandish and harmful conclusions. I’ll take a look at a few of them in turn.

* She says technology which plays strongly on the senses – like video games – can “blow the mind" by temporarily or permanently deactivating certain nerve connections in the brain.

First things first: 'Mind' in scientific terms has no universally accepted definition, so the majority of behavioural and neurological studies simply ignore it as a factor altogether. But pedantry aside, the temporary or permanent deactivation of nerve connections in the brain is implied to be a negative consequence of excessive computer game playing, as opposed to a perfectly normal and actually quite essential occurrence in a typical, healthy brain. A great deal of the brain's connections are actually used for deactivating other connections and processes. One of the brain's most powerful neurotransmitters (the chemicals used by neurones to communicate with each other) is gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is inhibitory, meaning it stops activity in other cells. And it's really good at this.

The constant deactivating of parts of the brain is vital to our functioning as normal cognitive beings. There can be times when too much of the brain is active at once, and these are seldom good things, as anyone who's had a seizure or violent hallucination will probably attest. You could argue that Baroness Greenfield is referring to specific, damaging connections, but I can only be as precise in my comments as she is being in hers. Areas of the brain being shut down or deactivated is as normal a part of development as losing your milk teeth.

* "If you play computer games to the exclusion of other things this will create a new environment that will have new effects … every hour you spend in front of a screen is an hour not spent climbing a tree or giving someone a hug."

The problem here is that this effect is not specific to video games. Anything you do excessively will create a new environment that your brain will eventually adapt to. If you are a keen fisherman you will spend a great deal of time staring at a large volume of water while holding an elaborate stick. Does this have long-term effect on your brain structure? Most likely, yes. Is it seriously damaging? Not as far as anyone is aware.

And yes, every hour you spend in front of a screen is an hour not spent climbing a tree or giving someone a hug. And every hour you spend on a train is not spent on a horse. What of it? Every hour spent doing something is an hour not spent doing something else. You may feel that climbing trees is a more 'positive' activity than video games, but that's purely a subjective view. It's undoubtedly an enjoyable pastime, but I think most people would agree though that you have significantly less chance of falling and breaking your neck while playing on an X-Box.

* She goes on to claim (the article is paraphrasing): “Screen technologies cause high arousal, which in turn activates the brain system’s underlying addiction and reward, resulting in the attraction of yet more screen-based activity.”

Again, yes. This is a largely accurate statement. But it's annoying how people (scientists in particular) will use long-winded, verbose methods of describing something in order confuse people, and attribute a meaning to it which suits their arguments. In this case, the phrase "high arousal, which in turn activates the brain system’s underlying addiction and reward, resulting in the attraction of yet more … activity" is more commonly known as 'fun' or 'enjoyment'. This same effect can be seen in football fans or pretty much anyone who has a persistent hobby. The long-term damaging effects of these aren't being questioned, so what sets video games part as a negative? The intense visual stimuli? The interactive nature of them? The requirement for concentration? The competitive element? All of these factors apply to any sport you want to name.

* The average child will spend almost 2,000 hours in front of a screen between their tenth and eleventh birthdays.

I don't know where this figure comes from, as no references were provided. But even if it is right, what of it? Welcome to 21st century Western society. Everything has a screen now. I currently own about seven. It's where we get our information from. A while ago, it was books. Some people would spend a lot of time reading books, which are rectangular, information-rich objects that could cause intense arousal and engage many brain regions. But people who condemn books aren't usually respected for it.

To be clear: there are undoubtedly things to criticise about video games. They can be needlessly violent, they can be unrewarding: perhaps it is unwise to subject children to such graphic themes, perhaps they do teach children unrealistic or dubious things. But each of these criticisms can be levelled at any entertainment format. The use of electronic media is an undeniable fact of life now, and is changing the way we see the world. In many ways, it's encouraging that so many children become adept at computer-based activities from such a young age; it'll give them more of a chance of making it in an increasingly technical society.

Baroness Greenfield clearly has her reasons for disliking computer games and other electronic entertainments, and I'm sure they're noble ones. But this does not justify the use of junk science, or the public airing of overblown conclusions based on little or no evidence. With every unsubstantiated claim, Baroness Greenfield distances herself further from the scientific community that once had such respect for her.


The establishment has been very indulgent to the loud-mouthed Jewish girl with her hunger for attention but her dumping from the Royal Institution and now this rebuke in the Telegraph would seem to indicate that she has finally gone too far. Her pronouncements were always designed to pander to elite prejudices and were always poorly founded in science. See here and here

3-in-1 test that 'virtually guarantees IVF success' could be available within months

A three-in-one test that could almost guarantee the chance of having a baby could be available within months. By allowing only the best eggs or embryos to be selected for IVF, the Oxford University test is expected to slash the odds of miscarriage and greatly boost the chances of a woman having a healthy baby. This would cut the financial and emotional costs of trying time after time to start a family.

IVF costs between £3,000 and £15,000 a course, but success is far from guaranteed. Just one in four of the 40,000 women who have it each year have a baby.

The test's inventor, Dagan Wells, said: 'It offers the possibility of enhancing success rates of IVF, allowing couples to more rapidly get to the point of having a child and avoids the heartbreak of miscarriage and termination of pregnancies affected by serious disorders.'

The new technique builds on an existing test called array comparative genomic hybridisation (CGH) which counts the number of chromosomes in an egg or embryo.

Healthy eggs should have 23 chromosomes and embryos 46, but many have more or less than this, greatly increasing the risk of miscarriage and of having a child with a condition such as Down's syndrome.

Up to three-quarters of miscarriages are thought to be due to embryos having the wrong number of chromosomes, with eggs from older women particularly likely to be defective.

'Astonishing' results released two years ago revealed array CGH to more than double a woman’s odds of getting pregnant.

Now, the technique’s pioneer Dr Wells is trying to make it even better by bolting on two other checks. He told the American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s annual conference that one involves counting the number of mitochondria – the tiny ‘batteries’ inside cells that turn the food we eat into energy.

The other involves checking structures called telomeres. These are tiny biological clocks that cap the ends of chromosomes, protecting them from damage, much like the caps on the ends of shoelaces prevent fraying.

Studies suggest that short or fraying telomeres can make the difference between ‘life or death’ for an embryo.

Dr Wells said testing for three defects rather than one could take the IVF success rate from the 80 per cent or so of array CGH to approaching 100 per cent. ‘We hope to fill in that gap and get closer to getting a successful pregnancy from every IVF cycle.’

He added that his test won’t help women whose pregnancies fail because of problems with the womb. But this is not a major cause of IVF failure and other researchers are working on ways of getting round it.

Dr Wells plans to make it available to around 15 British IVF clinics within weeks. However, initially, only the chromosome data will be used when deciding which embryos to use in IVF.

After around six months, he will look at the telomere and mitochondria data taken from the embryos at the time and see whether it also helped predict the women’s odds of becoming pregnant.

If so, he plans to make the full three-in-one test available to British clinics. It will only be available privately initially and is expected to add around £2,000 to the cost of IVF, the same as array CGH.

The British Fertility Society has previously cautioned against the use of array CGH until there is large-scale data on how well it works.


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