Sunday, December 26, 2010

My picks for the top studies of 2010

Presented in no particular order, here are the ten studies of 2010 that I found the most interesting. Enjoy!

1. A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind
I wrote about this study here. Authors used an iPhone app to obtain "what are you doing?", "what are you thinking about?" and "how happy are you right now?" data. It turns out that we are thinking about something other than what we are doing about half of the time, and these are the times we are least happy.

2. Electrical Enhancement of Mathematical Ability.
I wrote about it here. The authors used transcranial direct-current stimulation as participants were learning an novel digit vocabulary. The stimulation (if done in the proper direction) facilitated this type of learning.

3. Ego Depletion only Happens if you Believe it will Happen.
I wrote about it here. Ego depletion is the idea that self-control is like a muscle, and if you use too much of it, you need to rest it like a muscle. The authors show here that people who believed in ego depletion had depleted continuous self-control, whereas people who believed that self-control was not a limited resource did not. Critically, giving people one of the two beliefs also changed behavior in the predicted direction.

4. Habit Formation in the Real World.
Have you heard that it takes 28 days to form a new habit? This is a very common notion, but is it true? The authors found that it can take up to 60 days for people to report a new behavior feeling automatic.

5. Vollenweider's Review of Psychadelic Drugs
Everything you ever wanted to know about psychedelics, but were afraid to ask. Good review of neurobiology of these drugs and their potential therapeutic uses in depression, OCD, anxiety, etc.

6. Eye Position Predicts what Number you have in Mind
When asked to generate "random" numbers, people have a hard time being truly random. In this study, people were asked to generate random numbers while their eye movements were monitored. It was found that the number a person generated could be predicted from the position of the eyes: in particular, that eyes in the lower left part of the visual field predicted small numbers and eyes in the upper right predicted large numbers.

7. Willful Modulation of Brain Activity in Disorders of Consciousness
Until this paper, there had been limited reports of patients in minimally conscious states able to perform mental imagery tasks as measured with fMRI. However, we also know that diagnosis of these states is prone to errors. How common is it for minimally conscious patients to be able to follow mental directions? 54 patients were tested, and it was found that only 5 could perform the tasks.

8. Putting Brain Training to the Test
Making software to "train your brain" into being smarter, more attentive, and less forgetful is a lucrative industry, but there was little evidence for or against this kind of training leading to cognitive enhancement. This massive study used over 11,000 participants and found that although participants got better at the tasks in the games, no improvement was found in non-trained real-world tasks. Save your money, folks.

9. Outcome Reporting Among Drug Trials
All clinical trials need to be registered through the NIH at This policy was designed to prevent Big Pharma from running near-infinite numbers of trials on a drug, then only reporting ones with positive results. This study examines differences between studies funded by industry, by government and by private organizations. Industry-funded trials had 85% positive results, while government-funded trials had 50% positive results. Humph.
10. Prediction of Individual Brain Maturity
 Human brains mature rather late and at different rates. The issue of brain maturity has been key to policy decisions about how to punish adolescent criminals and how to insure adolescent drivers. This study uses fMRI to show how mature an individual brain is. 

Killingsworth MA, & Gilbert DT (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science (New York, N.Y.), 330 (6006) PMID: 21071660

Cohen Kadosh R, Soskic S, Iuculano T, Kanai R, & Walsh V (2010). Modulating neuronal activity produces specific and long-lasting changes in numerical competence. Current biology : CB, 20 (22), 2016-20 PMID: 21055945

Job V, Dweck CS, & Walton GM (2010). Ego depletion--is it all in your head?: implicit theories about willpower affect self-regulation. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21 (11), 1686-93 PMID: 20876879

Vollenweider FX, & Kometer M (2010). The neurobiology of psychedelic drugs: implications for the treatment of mood disorders. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 11 (9), 642-51 PMID: 20717121

Loetscher, T., Bockisch, C., Nicholls, M., & Brugger, P. (2010). Eye position predicts what number you have in mind Current Biology, 20 (6) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.01.015

Monti, M., Vanhaudenhuyse, A., Coleman, M., Boly, M., Pickard, J., Tshibanda, L., Owen, A., & Laureys, S. (2010). Willful Modulation of Brain Activity in Disorders of Consciousness New England Journal of Medicine, 362 (7), 579-589 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa0905370

Owen, A., Hampshire, A., Grahn, J., Stenton, R., Dajani, S., Burns, A., Howard, R., & Ballard, C. (2010). Putting brain training to the test Nature, 465 (7299), 775-778 DOI: 10.1038/nature09042

Bourgeois FT, Murthy S, & Mandl KD (2010). Outcome reporting among drug trials registered in Annals of internal medicine, 153 (3), 158-66 PMID: 20679560

Dosenbach NU, Nardos B, Cohen AL, Fair DA, Power JD, Church JA, Nelson SM, Wig GS, Vogel AC, Lessov-Schlaggar CN, Barnes KA, Dubis JW, Feczko E, Coalson RS, Pruett JR Jr, Barch DM, Petersen SE, & Schlaggar BL (2010). Prediction of individual brain maturity using fMRI. Science (New York, N.Y.), 329 (5997), 1358-61 PMID: 20829489


  1. Good round-up! It's a late entry but I think this recent paper on the woman with no amygdala also deserves a spot though...

  2. Oh, you're right - that is a good one!

  3. Definitely the first person to be cured of AIDS: