E-cigarettes – What’s the harm?

Portrait of woman smoking with electronic cigaretteI’ve recently noticed a wealth of articles exploring the potential for harm associated with ‘smoking’ E-Cigarettes (also known as vaping) – for a few examples see here, here and here. But, with vaping steadily on the rise* what is the bigger picture?

One thing we can all agree on is that smoking cigarettes is pretty dam bad for you; certainly, the facts and figures associated with this habit don’t make for pleasant reading…

In brief:

  • There are about one billion smokers worldwide, of whom about half will die prematurely as a direct consequence of smoking.
  • Smoking currently accounts for around 100,000, or about one in six, deaths each year in the UK.
  • Smoking causes around 85% of the approximately 40,000 cases of (and deaths from) lung cancer in the UK each year. What’s more, smoking also contributes to the development of many other cancers, including oral cavity cancer, oesophageal and gastric cancer, kidney and bladder cancers, and pancreatic cancer.

…for more startling stats see here.

With this in mind, it’s worth noting that electronic cigarettes have traditionally been marketed as a ‘less harmful’ alternative to smoking and, in some cases, a stepping stone on the path to quitting the habit entirely. But what are they, what are the associated risks and are they really safer than conventional cigarettes?

image2Electronic cigarettes are designed to provide a measured dose of inhaled nicotine, whilst also mimicking the experience of smoking a conventional cigarette. Early models looked almost identical to normal cigarettes, with most even incorporating a realistic glowing tip. However, newer products come in all kinds of shape and sizes.

The most important difference between e-cigarettes and the real deal is the method of nicotine delivery. A regular cigarette burns tobacco and the user inhales the resulting nicotine-rich smoke, along with any associated nasties. E-cigarettes, however, produce a vapour by heating a solution of nicotine mixed with propylene glycol or glycerine. This method of nicotine delivery means that users still get the desired effect from the vapour but, without many of the toxic side effects associated with cigarette smoke.

It is now widely accepted that nicotine itself carries no serious health implications and is likely to be no more harmful than caffeine (for studies see here, here and here). The main problem with cigarettes is that they deliver their nicotine hit alongside a staggering array of carcinogens and toxins. These include: nitrosamines, acetone, acetylene, DDT, lead, radioactive polonium, hydrogen cyanide, methanol, arsenic and cadmium and vapour phase toxins such as carbon monoxide.

Since e-cigarettes do not burn tobacco, they do not deliver such a large doses of associated nasties. However, this does not mean that they’re harmless. Studies reveal that e-cigarettes contain small amounts of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde (both known human carcinogens); they can also deliver trace levels of carcinogenic nitrosamines, and some toxic metals such as cadmium, nickel and lead. A quick scan of the literature suggests that levels of these substances can vary hugely between e-cig brands, however, most studies agree that levels are generally low and are almost always significantly below those delivered by traditional cigarettes. Also, unlike traditional cigarette smoke, there appears to be little harm in the passive inhalation of vapour.

So at this point the case for e-cigarettes looks pretty strong. We know that smoking kills and that, without intervention, millions of smokers alive today will die of smoking-related illnesses. Despite being new to the market and lacking the long term research which can only come from an established product, e-cigarettes certainly seem significantly safer than their conventional cousins. Therefore, it is likely that making the switch from smoke to vapour is going to be pretty beneficial for your health.

This said, I don’t think we should be complacent with vaping and it certainly shouldn’t be marketed as ‘harmless’. It is important that legislations be formulated to standardise the mechanics of vaporisers and the content of e-liquids – particularly since studies have found products to vary widely in both their toxicity and nicotine delivery. Advertising must also be approached with caution. Critics of e-cigarettes have suggested that vaping may become a gateway for youngsters into smoking. Although there is currently no grounding to these fears, it is important that vaping is not glamorized in the media – it is not a harmless practice and should only be used by those already addicted to nicotine who want to improve their health by quitting smoking.

So, although we may have discovered smoke without fire there is no guarantee we won’t still get burned…

Post by: Sarah Fox

* Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) has estimated that currently about 1.3 million people in the UK use electronic cigarettes, and around 400,000 people have completely replaced smoking with electronic cigarettes (for link see here).

Schizophrenia: setting the misconceptions straight

I’m not going to lie, I do enjoy films like ‘Fight Club’ and ‘Me, Myself and Irene’, and I agree that ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ is a classic novel which should be read by all. image1But putting entertainment aside, presenting those with schizophrenia as violent individuals with split personalities does not help public understanding of the illness. Such widely believed misconceptions are only amplified further by the media. A prime example was the recent story in The DailyMail about a paranoid schizophrenic who murdered a young man. The paper nicknamed the perpetrator the ‘cannibal killer’; a catchy title which leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that individuals with schizophrenia are a danger to others. But these views are both mistaken and highly damaging to the 21 million individuals living with schizophrenia around the world today. Hopefully the evidence presented here can go a little way towards dispelling these misconceptions.

Misconception number 1: people with schizophrenia have a split personality

The most common misconception about schizophrenia is that people with the illness have a split personality; that is, they may be their normal selves one minute and then seem like a completely different person the next. In a survey carried out by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 64% of Americans said that they share this belief.

image2However, what people are actually describing when they talk about a split personality is a condition known as dissociative identity disorder (DID; previously multiple personality disorder). People with DID generally present with around 13–15 different personalities and, in some cases, have even been known to have up to 100! Those with schizophrenia, on the other hand, tend to suffer from hallucinations and paranoia, often hearing voices or believing that someone is ‘out to get them’. The two conditions are very different and should not be confused.

Of course, this misunderstanding is not helped by fact that the term ‘schizophrenia’ means ‘split mind’ in Greek. The name was, however, coined a long time ago, before the symptoms of schizophrenia were properly understood. A significant number of experts in the illness now believe this term is inappropriate and agree that schizophrenia should be renamed.

Misconception number 2: all people with schizophrenia are violent

The belief that all people who suffer from schizophrenia are violent is another widely held misconception. Going back to NAMI’s survey, around 60% of Americans identified violent behaviour as a symptom of schizophrenia. Why is this the case?

Putting aside the obvious influence of films and media, there are studies which have found a correlation between mental illness and violence. Swanson, for instance, concluded in his 1994 study that those with a mental illness, including schizophrenia, were twice as likely to be violent as the general population. This correlation, however, could be explained by the presence of co-existing substance abuse, rather than the mental illness itself. In fact, only 7% of the individuals in the study who had a mental illness but did not use drugs had shown violent behaviour.

Stignorance StickerMore recent investigations by Swanson (2002) and Elbogen (2009) further support the argument that factors other than mental illness may predispose an individual to violence. These studies found that, apart from substance abuse, factors associated with violence in the mentally ill included homelessness, physical abuse and unemployment. Mental illness alone was found to be unrelated to violence and those without any co-existing risk factors were no more likely to be violent than someone from the general population.

On the same topic, the belief that individuals with schizophrenia are violent towards others is not necessarily the case either. In fact, people with schizophrenia are more likely to hurt themselves than those around them, having an 8.5 fold higher suicide risk than the general population.

This is certainly not the first article hoping to dispel the misconceptions that people with schizophrenia are violent or have a split personality, nor will it be the last. But with popular films, such as ‘Fight Club’ and ‘Me, Myself and Irene’, and headline news stories reinforcing these misperceptions, it’s going to take a lot of work to change public view of schizophrenia. Perhaps the introduction of a new name could help dissociate schizophrenia from these stereotypical portrayals, allowing us to be entertained by stories like ‘Fight Club’ or ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, without letting them shape an inaccurate public perception of a mental illness.

Post by: Megan Barrett

‘What are you looking at?’: The science of facial pareidolia

image1 copy 2As a child, much to my parents’ confusion, I had the uncanny ability to see faces in everyday patterns and objects. Yes, my circle of friends soon extended well beyond the confines of the playground, covering cloud formations, leaves, coffee stains and my personal favourite, a wise old man who stared knowingly down from a rip in my bedroom wallpaper. This peculiarity was put down to the fact that I was  an only child with a particularly overactive imagination. However, the ability has never left me and these illusionary faces often still pop up from time to time…although I now rarely try and engage them in conversation.

Therefore, I was quite interested to find that this phenomenon, known as facial pareidolia, is actually quite common. It is also the subject of a recent research paper entitled: ‘Seeing Jesus in Toast: Neural and behavioural correlates of face pareidolia’, which won its authors an Ig Nobel prize*. This paper explores how pareidolias (both facial and otherwise) can be used to understand the way our brains process information and how our sensory experiences often incorporate more than meets the eye.

We all know that our sensory experiences (vision, olfaction, touch etc) begin life in our sensory organs (eyes, nose, fingertips etc). Once a sensation is detected, this travels to the brain, where it is processed into a multi-sensory experience. However, we are not just passive sensors, like a camera. Instead our sensations are often coloured by internal processes, such as mood, expectation or attention. This ‘colouring’ is known as top-down modulation and can be a particularly personal experience (think of the Rorschach ‘inkblot’ test). Facial pareidolia is a good example of top-down modulation since: our sensory organs are simply experiencing a random pattern of input (such as a cloud formation or coffee stain), and something else causes us to give this input a more familiar or meaningful interpretation – in this case a face.

The study described in ‘Seeing Jesus in Toast’ investigated which brain regions were active when participants experienced pareidolia for either faces or letters. Specifically, brain activity was monitored while subjects viewed one of five different categories of images:

1) obvious faces (image: A)

2) hard-to-detect faces (image: B)

3) obvious letters (image: C)

4) hard-to-detect letters (image: D)

5) pure noise – no face or letter (image: E).

image2 copy 2

Participants were told that the images they were being shown could  contain either faces or letters and were asked to decide which pictures actually showed this hidden imagery. To ensure that all participants experienced pareidolia, the pesky researchers deliberately made sure that this task was really tricky.

What they discovered was that their subjects were a pretty suggestible bunch. Those who expected to see faces often spied a pair of eyes peering out at them from the pure noise stimuli, while those who were looking for letters often saw just that. .

From this work, the researchers were able to identify a network of crafty brain regions which seemed to be specifically responsible for tricking us into seeing illusory faces. They suggested that when we expect to see a face, regions of the brain responsible for decision making and facial recognition (such as the prefrontal cortex) shout commands down to regions that process more basic elements of images  ( in this case a region known as the right fusiform face area). Such a shout forces the ‘lower’ areas to incorrectly interpret a noisy image as containing a face. Put simply, if the brain is expecting to see a face it can alter the way we interpret visual information and make us see things which aren’t actually there.

drawingInterestingly, not all noisy images were incorrectly interpreted as showing faces. In fact, when the researchers took a closer look and compared noisy images which were mistaken for faces with those which were not, they found that these did actually contain patterns which looked a bit like faces. Take a good long squint at the image to the left (showing a noisy image mistaken for a face) and, at least to me, it’s easy to see two eyes a nose and an open mouth.

The researchers suggest that the system responsible for seeing faces popping out of highly ambiguous visual information may actually be adaptive. Specifically, they say “The tendency to detect faces in ambiguous visual information is perhaps highly adaptive given the supreme importance of faces in our social life and the high cost resulting from failure to detect a true face”. So, it appears that not only is seeing faces perfectly normal, but it may even be a socially adaptive trait. I guess that means I’m not really crazy and neither is this woman

Post by: Sarah Fox

* The Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that make people laugh, and then make them think and include a huge range of fascinating research. If you’ve not already heard of them I strongly recommend you have a browse through their website (here).


Solipsism, Sympathy, and the Connection of Minds

image1Human beings often share the desire to reach out and connect to others, to feel part of a community, to understand and to be understood. In fact, understanding and empathy  underpin a peaceful and productive society, and connecting with others can provide a sense of purpose and meaning. It is this connection of minds that has long been a topic of fascination.

The early-modern philosophers such as Descartes and Wittgenstein introduced the philosophical notion of solipsism, taken from the Latin solus, meaning “alone”, and ipse, meaning “self”. Solipsism can be defined as “the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist”. Hence, philosophers of a solipsistic persuasion questioned the very existence of other minds.

This question has been scientifically investigated by psychologists interested in  the Theory of Mind (or ToM). The term was coined by  Premack and Woodruff (1978), who studied chimpanzees.  They inferred from their investigations that chimps could attribute intentions and desires to others (human actors), showing that they understood the concept of another mind. Human research suggests that ToM develops around the age of 5 or earlier, when children can understand that other people have different desires, thoughts, and feelings to their own.

But if the mind can conceive of another mind, how does this occur, and what evidence do we have to challenge the solipsism of Descartes and Wittgenstein?

image2The answers lie in the advancement of technology and neuroscience. Dr Giacomo Rizzolatti recorded electrical activity from the brain of a monkey whilst they performed a specific action (grasping an object) – so far nothing exceptional. However, the same electrical activity in the monkey’s brain was generated when the animal  observed another person performing the same action. This suggested that the monkey understood the action to be the same as its own, demonstrating a kind of ‘sympathy’. The cells responsible for this understanding of another’s actions were termed ‘mirror neurons’, due to the obvious connection with mirroring another’s behaviour.

So far it seems that we can theorise about another’s mind, and that the explanation of understanding another’s actions can be (at least partly) explained by mirror neurons, but the possibility of the connection of minds is yet to be proven.

… Or is it? Earlier this year, a group of scientists from Spain, France and the U.S.A documented what they term ‘conscious brain-to-brain communication’. Grau and colleagues recruited participants in two distant locations, one to be the ‘emitter’ – the person who generated the message to communicate; and one to be the ‘receiver’. The emitter thought of a word, which was represented as a binary code of ‘1’s and ‘0’s. The ‘1’s and ‘0’s were recorded from the brain of the emitter using motor imagery: if the emitter wished to communicate a ‘1’ they imagined an action with their hands, for a ‘0’ they imagined an action with their feet. The electrical activity from the scalp over the brain areas relating to the actions of hands and feet was recorded with  electroencephalography. Computers transformed this electrical activity back to binary code for transmission via the internet to the location of the receiver. A computer at this location received the binary code and relayed it to the person designated as the receiver. The receiver experienced the ‘1’s and ‘0’s via   a magnetic field applied to the brain through the scalp (transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS). If the digit of code to be conveyed was a ‘1’ the researchers  stimulated the part of the brain responsible for vision, and this made the receiver think they were seeing a light.

If the digit to be conveyed was a ‘0’ the computer positioned the magnetic stimulation over a different part of the brain which resulted in the omission of a light. Therefore, the receiver could communicate the code of ‘1’s and ‘0’s based on the presence and omission of lights. The transmitted word could be  deciphered, completing the brain-to-brain communication.


Although perhaps not what Descartes and Wittgenstein had in mind when they questioned the existence of other minds, modern technology has helped us to explore, explain and expand our means of communication with some truly fascinating results.

Post by: Gemma Barnacle


Original article by Grau and colleagues: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0105225

Interview with Rizzolatti on the discovery of mirror neurons: http://www.gocognitive.net/interviews/discovery-mirror-neurons-1