The woman who can’t forget

February 18, 2018

Becky Sharrock

What’s your earliest memory? One thing I’m sure of is that it does not go back to when you were 12 days old. For Brisbane resident Becky Sharrock it is all too real. This young Australian can remember every one of her 28 birthdays. I have long been fascinated by how we male memories. In a post I wrote nine years ago, Memories are made of this, I referred to the case of HM, who after a botched lobotomy, was unable to make any new memories. I then looked at declarative memory for records names, faces, and new experiences, and motor memory for such things as riding a bike, driving a car or using a toothbrush. After this I explored I how memories can go wrong. Memory does not work like a videotape recorder. Every time we remember something we are prone to subtle biases. Finally I talked about how some people are able to train themselves to perform prodigious memory feats.

Becky Sharrock’s case is different. She suffers from an exceptionally rare condition which is known as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory or HSAM. I heard about her life on ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind podcast. HSAM, which is also known as hyperthymesia, was first diagnosed just 12 years ago, and there are said to be some 60 people in the world who have it. This is surely an underestimate, but it is vanishingly rare. It was in 2006 that the American neurobiologists from the University of California-Irvine made an important discovery. A team led by James McGaugh reported the first known first diagnosis of HSAM for Jill Price, a woman, from Southern California, who would inspire more research into the condition.

People with HSAM have a fantastic memory for dates. But this aspect should not be confused with the people  like Dominic O’Brien who was able to memorise a random sequence of 2808 playing cards (54 packs) after looking at each card only once. O’Brien employs mnemonic techniques, whereas Sharrock’s memories come naturally. They also have an incredible recall for mundane details. Curiously, they do not show exceptional memory in other domains apart from autobiographical memory. Thus they don’t tend to be good at rote learning.

Here is an example of the way Sharrock’s memory works:

4 September 2006 was a Monday, and on that particular day I was going to my therapist who I was seeing for my autism. I was on my way to see him when my stepdad called my mum and said, ‘Did you hear Steve Irwin died from a stingray?’ And I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘No, I didn’t hear of that,’ because Steve Irwin, I looked at him as invincible to any animal attack. He’d done so many daring things with crocodiles, I thought there’s no way on earth Steve Owen could have died. But then I saw the news afterwards and it was true, and it was sad, and especially since he had two young children and the time and it was sad for…it was sad for Terri, and it was sad that little Robert who was only two years old at the time, that he didn’t get a chance to spend a lot of time with his dad, yeah.

Her facility for remembering everything can be unnerving for Sharrock’s mother as her daughter has a word-for-word recollection of what her mother said. She can pick her mother up on what she said five years ago.

Her memories also trigger associated powerful emotions, which can be a real problem.  This is the real curse of HSAM. You end up reliving negative memories. Here is an example of how her emotions come to the fore:

I was walking down a path and I saw a leaf on the ground which was at a similar angle to how it was at a time when I was walking home from school, and when I re-lived that time, on that particular day after I walked home from school I had been bullied that day. So the emotions when that memory was formed, I was depressed because a bully said something to me. Then years later when I saw a leaf that was similar to one that I saw on the path walking home, I again re-lived just the depression and the feeling of hopelessness that I experienced back at that time.

Obviously, this makes life very hard. She gets a lot of headaches. Sleep is also a big challenge; she is often kept awake by her intense memories. She has to have her brain stimulated to help her to fall asleep.

Sharrock also re-feels physical pain and re-tastes food. This is great if the memory is associated with Black Forest gateaux, her favourite. She can actually re-taste the cream, the chocolate and the cherries. It’s worse when it comers to re–experiencing pain.  Sharrock has synaesthesia when she thinks about certain objects or things she gets unusual associations. She has a heightened perception of stimuli. She has been diagnosed with both OCD and autism. How these interact and what links there might be between them is a controversial area.

From reading about Becky Sharrock, I found that a lot of the science is rather tentative. After all, the condition was only diagnosed just over a decade ago. The physiological basis has not been clearly established. We do not really know how their memories work. Sharrock describes what she remembers of when she was twelve days old. I’m not sure how we can know if they are real. However, if they are genuine, HSAM could also shed light on how babies and children view the world. I suppose we also learn the value of forgetting. They may have superior memories, but they are also capable of forming false memories. Indeed, up until now, no group has been found that were immune to these flawed memories.

There is no doubt that Rebecca Sharrock has had a challenging life. Nevertheless, the fact that scientists are researching the condition and that she does not feel alone has helped her establish an identity and even a career path. Self-employed, she blogs for a company called SpecialKids.Company, which makes and sell purpose-made clothes for children with disabilities. Her contribution is to write posts giving her insights. She has a YouTube channel and gives public talks. What an uplifting story!

I’ll finish a video of Sharrock reciting Harry Potter from memory:

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How illnesses are named?

February 11, 2018

Doctor to patient: The bad news is you have disease unknown to medical science – the good news is I’m going to name it after me.

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Where do the names of diseases, illnesses, conditions and syndromes come from? The history of the way we give names to diseases is colourful and controversial. It is a story of confusion, national rivalries, stigma and controversial scientists. The names we give to diseases reflect our current medical knowledge, but they are also a product of our societies. This is a fascinating historical journey.

Many of the names of illnesses have traditionally been eponymous. Medical eponyms are terms used in medicine that are named after people, and less frequently places or things. Although there are eponyms from patients such as Lou Gehrig disease (ALS), it is far more typical to take the name of the discovering doctor or scientist – Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease, Tourette syndrome, Asperger’s syndrome and Hodgkin’s lymphoma are well-known examples. One thing I did not know was that Salmonellosis is an eponym too. The epidemiologist Theobald Smith, who isolated the bacteria in 1885, named the bacteria salmonella in honour of his boss, Daniel Elmer Salmon, a veterinary pathologist in charge of a U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Industry research program during the late 19th century.

Sometimes the name taken can be controversial. Reiter’s syndrome is “a medical condition typically affecting young men, characterized by arthritis, conjunctivitis, and urethritis, and caused by an unknown pathogen, possibly a Chlamydia.” The problem is that Hans Reiter was an infamous Nazi war criminal who carried out terrible experiments on inmates at Buchenwald. He had discovered the syndrome in 1916 when he treated a soldier during the First World War. Now it is often referred to as reactive arthritis.

I do think that it rather bizarre to have a condition disease or a deadly microbe named in your honour. I suppose it is a way of achieving immortality, but I wouldn’t think that it would make your future in-laws feel particularly well-disposed towards you. There has been a move away from such eponyms. There are a number of reasons for this. These names provide no information to medical professionals. And imagine having to memorise all these surnames. The condition Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser Syndrome, which involves congenital anomalies in or absence of the uterus and vagina, must be a nightmare to remember. This is why is also known as Müllerian agenesis or RKHS syndrome. What’s more science has become a much more collaborative enterprise, where it has become increasingly difficult to name just one person. I love the human stories behind eponyms, but I can see they may belong to another era.

What do Lyme Disease, Guinea Worm, German Measles, Ebola, and Lassa Fever have in common? They belong to another branch of eponymous name, ones which refer to the place where the disease allegedly originated. I use the word allegedly for good reason; many times the name does not reflect the medical reality. The classic case of this is the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918. There was nothing particularly Spanish about this catastrophic epidemic, which left more than fifty million people dead. Why did Spain get the blame for this? As Spain was neutral in WWI, the Spanish government did not censor newspapers, as happened in the countries which were fighting. They did not want to lower morale. The Spanish press did print information about some deaths in Madrid, which were thus believed to have been the first cases. In fact, there had already been an outbreak in the USA, but it was hushed up.

This human tendency to blame whatever country they hate the most other areas for an illness is best shown in this map I found online. The disease in question is syphilis. Click on ther image:

AIDS provides another example of our tendency to lay the blame on unpopular social groups. It was originally known as GRID (gay related immune deficiency). I also saw 4H disease (haemophiliacs, homosexuals, heroin users, and Haitians. The names can also be misleading. In the case of swine flu it was humans who infected pigs, not pigs infecting humans. Nevertheless, a 2009 pandemic in Egypt led the Egyptian government to order a comprehensive hog slaughter. The pigs belonged to the much set-upon Coptic Christians. There was no scientific justification for the cull.

All this has led to the WHO introducing guidelines.  You can find them online:

The best practices state that a disease name should consist of generic descriptive terms, based on the symptoms that the disease causes (e.g. respiratory disease, neurologic syndrome, watery diarrhoea) and more specific descriptive terms when robust information is available on how the disease manifests, who it affects, its severity or seasonality (e.g. progressive, juvenile, severe, winter). If the pathogen that causes the disease is known, it should be part of the disease name (e.g. coronavirus, influenza virus, and salmonella).

 Terms that should be avoided in disease names include geographic locations (e.g. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu, Rift Valley fever), people’s names (e.g. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease), species of animal or food (e.g. swine flu, bird flu, monkey pox), cultural, population, industry or occupational references (e.g. legionnaires), and terms that incite undue fear (e.g. unknown, fatal, epidemic).

The reality is that it is really hard to find the right name. Let’s take Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. I have almost no idea about the work of Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt and Alfons Maria Jakob. They did seem to have interesting lives. Creutzfeldt, who was 54 years old when WWII broke out, was not a Nazi supporter. Indeed, he saved a number of people from certain death in concentration camps, and also managed to rescue almost all of his patients from being euthanized under the Nazi Aktion T4 program. Be that as it may, the name is not very informative. However, transmissible spongiform encephalitis means little to me. However, there are worse examples. If you look at the longest words in the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, they all seem to be medical in nature, but this is my intuition.

hepaticocholangiogastrostomy – 28 letters

spectrophotofluorometrically – 28 letters

pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism – 30 letters

These mash-ups of Latin and Greek roots are just incomprehensible to me.

The longest word in any of the major English language dictionaries is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a word that refers to a lung disease contracted from the inhalation of very fine silica particles, specifically from a volcano; medically, it is the same as silicosis. The word seems to have been deliberately coined to be the longest word in English. What some people will do to get attention! In the end when it comes to epidemics, you also need a word that is catchy, that alerts the public to the dangers. To do all of this does strike me as extremely complicated. It is very difficult to control language. we may well need to develop a dual system – one for the public and another for professionals.

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If you are interested in this topic, there are a couple of interesting podcasts:

Allusionist 45: Eponyms II – Name That Disease.

BBC Word of Mouth: Naming Diseases


Fantasyland in action: the rise of the Anti-Vaxxer movement

October 28, 2017

Doctors complain that quacks keep patients away from orthodox medicine. I cheer! Since all the treatments, both orthodox and alternative, for cancer, coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and arthritis, are equally unproven, why would a sane person choose treatment that can kill the patient? Dr. Robert S. Mendelsohn

The University of Google is where I got my degree from! Actress Jenny McCarthy the public face of the antivaccine movement in the 2000s on the Oprah show

When I was little, a thousand American children died from polio every year, and thousands more were permanently paralyzed. The year I turned three, a flu epidemic killed seventy thousand people in the United States, and I spent two weeks in the hospital with unstoppable diarrhoea caused by a retrovirus, and nearly died. Back then, as many as a thousand American kids died every year from diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough. Several hundred Americans were dying every year from measles, and the disease rendered many hundreds more deaf or, as we said then, retarded. But during the 1950s and early ’60s, vaccines appeared that prevented all those, and every kid got them. Many thousands of unnecessary deaths and cripplings were prevented. There was no antivaccine movement. Kurt Andersen in Fantasyland

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In 1955 the world’s first safe and effective polio vaccine came out. Discovered by the American virologist Jonas Salk, the vaccine was motive for huge celebration in the USA and the rest of the world. Having successfully inoculated thousands of monkeys, Salk took the risky step of testing the vaccine on humans in 1952. He must have had faith in his discovery – as well as administering the vaccine to 161 children from the Pittsburgh area, Salk injected himself, his wife and his three sons with the vaccine in his kitchen. Salk announced the success of the initial human tests to a national radio audience on March 26, 1953. But shortly after all this moment of triumph, a bad batch of polio vaccine came out sparking a polio epidemic which left 200 children with paralysis and killed ten. Nevertheless, such was the trust in science that parents quickly went back to vaccinating their kids. This was the Golden Age of Vaccines when the public accepted the value of the scientific breakthroughs. Now Salk’s laboratory would probably have been bombed by animal rights’ activists and it would have denounced as some kind of conspiracy to brainwash society. Indeed, the golden age didn’t last. And it all began in the 1960s

Robert Mendelsohn, M.D. was born in 1926. This self-proclaimed medical maverick became politicized in the late 60s. I am sure that the grandfatherly, white coated, paediatrician was a very pleasant and kind man. And I don’t doubt that his motives were sincere. He probably did want doctors to be the best they could be. And some of his criticisms of the medical establishment were justified. But talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater! He really did come out with some nonsense. Mendelsohn believed that parents were better qualified than doctors to assess their children’s health. If you were a woman the greatest danger to your health might actually be your doctor. And germane to this week’s topic he was one of the leading opponents of vaccination, claiming that there was no convincing scientific evidence that mass vaccination could be credited with eliminating any childhood disease. This is what I was talking about last week. Countercultural ideas gradually seeped out into the rest of society. Unfortunately there are still websites praising this doctor.

A more recent anti-vaxxer star is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. The son of Bobby has trashed the legacy of his uncle, who was a proponent of vaccines. Kennedy, Jr claimed that government scientists were “involved in a massive fraud.” There have even been rumours that he would chair a commission on vaccine safety to be set up by Donald Trump. All we need now is expert witnesses including Jim Carrey, Alicia Silverstone, Charlie Sheen and the University of Google’s Jenny McCarthy, all well-known anti-vaxxers. And it could be chaired by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the doctor responsible for a notorious 1998 study of EIGHT subjects which purported to show a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

This is where the scepticism has brought us. It is good to analyse the motivation of pharmaceutical companies, but to go from there to believing that vaccines had nothing to do with the eradication of so many diseases or that there is a connection between autism and the MMR vaccine, is highly irresponsible. There have already been really serious consequences. In December 2014 there was a serious outbreak of the measles at Disneyland, California. Over a period of just three days, some 40 people contracted the disease during their visit visiting the park. They then went on to infect over 80 more people, and there are currently said to be around 127 measles cases attributed to the Disneyland incident. The outbreak sparked a new law in California; as of June 2015, parents are longer able to opt out of inoculations due to their “personal beliefs”. Measles also swept through a Somali immigrant community in Minnesota that had been targeted by anti-vaxxer advocates, including the Organic Consumers Association and Andrew Wakefield. Consequently, during the next few years vaccination rates plummeted in the community making its members more vulnerable to measles and mumps too. There were 79 cases in the 2017 outbreak, of which 65, or 80% affected children of Somali descent. Science has become a victim of its own success. We have forgotten how terrible these diseases can be. Sadly, we may be about to become acquainted with them. Irrational thinking costs lives.

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As Ben Goldacre likes to say: the plural of anecdote is not data. Here are a couple of charts from the University of Oxford’s Vaccine Knowledge Project website:


A couple more songs

October 28, 2017

Here are a two more songs about vaccines:


Hell is other people under a dome

March 19, 2017

I am a big fan of the American writer T.C. Boyle. In fact, I talked about a previous novel of his, When the Killing’s Done in a previous post, A few rabbits can’t do any harm.  The 2011 novel looked at the battle between conservationist, Alma Takesue and animal rights activist Dave LaJoy. The former is on a mission to preserve endangered ecosystems from invasive species, whereas the former disagrees with the notion that humans have the right to choose which animals will live or die. This reflects a couple of common tropes in Boyle’s work. One is the environment and how we interact with it. He is also interested in fanaticism, the dynamics of cults and failed utopian projects. In previous works he has looked into the worlds of John Kellogg, Alfred Kinsey and Frank Lloyd Wright.

In his sixteenth novel, The Terranauts, Boyle transplants us into the ecosphere, an artificial ecosystem located in the Arizona desert. His inspiration for the story came from an experiment from the early 1990s known as Biosphere 2 (Biosphere I is Planet Earth.), in which four men and four women were sealed inside a three-acre glass structure in Oracle, Arizona for two years. The two men behind Space Biosphere Ventures were the wealthy Fort Worth Texas oil heir Edward P. Bass and eccentric ecology guru John Polk Allen. In turn, Allen was inspired by Buckminster Fuller and his geodesic dome. The biosphere was a mixture of high-minded science, New Age bullshit and American hucksterism. Curiously, one of the people involved at one point in the Biosphere 2 project was a certain Steve Brannon, Trump’s Campaign CEO and now White House Chief Strategist. The man behind Breitbart News had very different views on the environment back then:

A lot of the scientists who are studying global change and studying the effects of greenhouse gases, many of them feel that the Earth’s atmosphere in 100 years is what Biosphere 2’s atmosphere is today. We have extraordinarily high CO2, we have very high nitrous oxide, we have high methane. And we have lower oxygen content. So the power of this place is allowing those scientists who are really involved in the study of global change, and which, in the outside world or Biosphere 1, really have to work with just computer simulation, this actually allows them to study and monitor the impact of enhanced CO2 and other greenhouse gases on humans, plants, and animals.

Now owned by the University of Arizona, the Biosphere is still in existence. Here are some facts about it I found online:

 

The research facility

7,200,000 cubic feet under sealed glass; 6,500 windows

91 feet at highest point

sealed from the earth below by a 500-ton welded stainless steel liner

40-acre campus

300,000 sq. ft. of administrative offices, classrooms, labs, conference centre, housing

Elevation is 3,820 feet above sea level

Over 3,000,000 visitors since 199

Over 500,000 K-12 student visitors since 1991

Biomes under Glass

Ocean with coral reef

Mangrove wetlands

Tropical rainforest

Savannah grassland

Fog desert

Biosphere II was a kind of Noah’s Ark for plants, animals, and humans. The crew was accompanied by 3,800 species of plants and animals.  It was the first two-year closure of a projected fifty. Closure was meant to be absolute and the sphere was expected to be self-sustaining, with its own food crops (bananas, papayas, sweet potatoes, beets, peanuts, rice, and wheat etc.) and domestic animals pigs goats. Alas it would not turn out that way. The original crew had to break closure on several occasions and there was a complete collapse of the experiment six months into the second closure. This was when Bannon was on board. The place was overrun by ants and cockroaches. What’s more two of the members of the first team vandalised the project from outside.

This is the setup for Boyle’s exploration into the complexity of maintaining an environment and living in a fishbowl.  Boyle begins the book with two epigraphs. The first is from the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of committed, thoughtful people can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  The second is from Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit: “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” (Hell is other people.). I think the second one is more germane to what happens in the ecosphere,

The terranauts are constantly being watched both by Mission Control and the tourists who come to gawk at them as they go about their daily lives. I would have thought that this would make a great idea for a TV programme. It’s amazing that no one has ever thought of it.

The story is narrated by three first-person narrators, Dawn Chapman and Ramsay Roothoorp, who are both inside the dome and Linda Ryu, who is working on the support staff, with the promise of being included in Mission Three. What unites them is being unlikable I do use books which use the device o having different narrators and these ones are most definitely unreliable. In the novel the ecosphere remains unbreached. But there are plenty of other problems: power cuts, decreasing oxygen levels and poor crop yields to name but a few. But the real drama is interpersonal with all the conflicts you can imagine with eight people trapped in a confined area for two years. I won’t tell you what happens in the end, but it is safe to assume that there will be lots of friction. It may be a scientific project, but it is being carried out by humans with their egos, jealousies and foibles.


I was reading that Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, will be the producer of a TV version of The Terranauts. I am looking forward to it.


A couple of videos

March 19, 2017

Here are a couple of videos about the real Biosphere:

Inside Biosphere 2: The World’s Largest Earth Science Experiment

Jane Poynter: Life in Biosphere 2


Is Hypnosis real?

January 29, 2017

We all have an image of what a hypnotist does. He says, “look into my eyes” while holding a gold pocket watch, pushing his subject into a semi-sleep, almost zombie-like state. Now the subject will obey everything the hypnotist tells him to do, however evil this may be. This has little basis in reality, but the question of what is going on when we are being hypnotised is, nevertheless, a fascinating one.

The Merriam Webster defines hypnosis as “a trancelike state that resembles sleep but is induced by a person whose suggestions are readily accepted by the subject”. Hypnos is the Greek God of sleep and there are many words which have this suffix hypnobate (sleepwalker), hypnagogic (bringing on sleep) and hypnotherapy (treatment of disease by hypnosis).

Can everyone be hypnotised? What the scientific consensus seems to be is that everyone is on a spectrum. Roughly 15% of the population are said to be highly hypnotizable. On the other hand, around 25% are thought to be not hypnotizable at all. As well as entertainers there are many applications. New Age therapists, Past Life therapists and Repressed Memory therapists all make use of hypnosis for their dubious ends.

Hypnosis has been the subject of debate for more than 200 years. Here we have to mention Dr. Franz Mesmer, the father of modern hypnotism, who believed that hypnosis was a mystical force flowing from the hypnotist into the subject; he called it “animal magnetism”. Hypnosis was originally known as mesmerism, after Mesmer, and we still use its derivative, mesmerize, today. As Mesmer turned out to be a fraud, the term hypnotism became the one which was most used.

We see what a person does under hypnosis, but it isn’t clear why he or she does it. This uncertainty is a result of the fact that consciousness and how the human mind works is still in many ways a mystery.  And as I don’t see scientists arriving at a definitive explanation of the mind in the foreseeable future, hypnosis will probably not give all its secrets.

The person being hypnotised is generally very absorbed, relaxed, suggestible and in a state of expectation. The subconscious mind comes to the fore. Your inhibitions are reduced. Some studies say that changes do take place in the brain. However, that’s pretty unremarkable as brain functioning also changes when we relaxed, exhausted or highly attentive. Sceptics tend to argue that hypnotic subjects aren’t really in an altered state of consciousness. Social pressure and the influence of the hypnotist are often enough to convince people that they should act a certain way. When they find themselves obeying they erroneously conclude that they must be in a hypnotic trance. The power of belief is enough to cause remarkable changes in a person. If you think someone is compelling you to act a certain way, then that is how you will act. It may well be what is going in hypnotherapy.  By thinking that hypnosis will ease your pain your mind will bring about this feeling. , It is very much like the placebo effect. Hypnosis and the placebo effect have a lot in common; both rely on the effects of suggestion and belief. Consequently it is really difficult to have an effective placebo control in a study of the effects of hypnosis. I should point out that not everyone agrees with the fakery hypothesis. I just haven’t seen alternative evidence that convinces me yet. It may be forthcoming in the future

The popular stereotypes of what hypnosis is that I referred to in my introduction bear little resemblance to actual hypnotism. In fact, our modern understanding of hypnosis clearly debunks these ideas. Subjects in a hypnotic state are not slaves to their “masters” – they have absolute free will. And they’re not actually in a semi-sleep state -they’re hyperattentive. In no way can hypnotized people be described mindless automatons. People are more suggestible and some inhibitions are reduced. But our safety and morality do not fly out of the window. People won’t do things during or after hypnosis that are out of character. Only in Hollywood can hypnosis turn a mild-mannered person into a cold-blooded murderer.