News

new year honours; neuroscience and the law; dementia audit; and polygraph trial

Honours for psychologists

It was a bumper year for psychologists in the 2012 New Year Honours, with The Psychologist currently aware of seven recipients from the discipline.

Professor Glynis Breakwell (Vice Chancellor of the University of Bath and a BPS Honorary Fellow) was made a Dame for services to higher education. An internationally renowned social psychologist (and former editor of The Psychologist!), Professor Breakwell is active as a policy adviser and scholar specialising on leadership, identity processes, risk communication and military cultures. Professor Breakwell’s research has resulted in her acting as an adviser to many government departments, multinational corporations and not-for-profit organisations. She told her university’s website: ‘It is wonderful to be honoured for simply doing the things I love, working with people that I admire, as part of a great University in a city of beauty and spirit. I want to share this recognition with everyone who has made it possible and to thank them.’

Professor Emeritus Jim Mansell (University of Kent) was appointed CBE for services to people with intellectual disabilities. Professor Mansell, a Society Fellow, started his career in the field of intellectual disabilities when, as a student at the University of Cardiff,
he set up a charity working with other students to support people with intellectual disabilities to move out of a large long-stay hospital. He later helped set up homes for people with severe and complex needs. In 1983, he founded the Tizard Centre at the University of Kent, providing degree courses in intellectual and developmental disabilities and autism studies. Professor Mansell said: ‘Of course I am delighted that my work has been recognised in this way… Everything which focuses attention on improving the lives of people with intellectual disabilities and their families helps make a difference.’

Professor Trevor Robbins (University of Cambridge), another Society Fellow, was appointed CBE for services to medical research. He told the Society: ‘I am greatly honoured by this award which provides important recognition in the UK of scientific research in psychology and neuroscience that has medical relevance.’ Professor Robbins’ research interests span the areas of cognitive neuroscience, behavioural neuroscience and psychopharmacology. His main work focuses on the functions of the frontal lobes of the brain and their connections with other regions, including the so-called ‘brain reward systems’.
Professor Dianne Berry (a Society Fellow at the University of Reading) was appointed OBE for services for scientific research. Professor Berry is a member of the Higher Education Funding Council for England Research and Innovation Strategic Advisory Committee, and she also chairs the Funding Council’s Research Evaluation Framework Equality and Diversity Panel. Professor Berry said; ‘I am absolutely delighted with the award, and feel very honoured that my contributions have been recognised in this way. I am very grateful to the many people in the University and the Society who have supported me over the years.’

Dr Ian McPherson (Chief Executive of the Mental Health Providers Forum, the representative body for voluntary sector mental health organisations working across England) was appointed OBE for services to mental health.

A Society Fellow and former Chair of the Division of Clinical Psychology, Dr McPherson worked as a practitioner, researcher and trainer, before moving into service development and management in the NHS and then on to policy implementation as Director of the National Institute for Mental Health in England and subsequently as founding Director of the National Mental Health Development Unit. He is also a Director of Improving Health and Wellbeing UK, a Non-Executive Director of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, a Trustee of the Centre for Mental Health and a Board Member of the International Initiative in Mental Health Leadership. He said: ‘Having spent around a third of my career working as a psychologist and two thirds using my knowledge of psychology in other capacities, I view this award in no small part as recognition of the contribution of applied psychology to improving mental health and mental health services.’

Chartered Psychologist Dr Raman Kapur (Chief Executive of the mental health charity Threshold) was appointed MBE for services to people with mental illness in Northern Ireland. He said: ‘I am delighted to receive this award, which recognises the important work of Clinical Psychologists in providing psychologically informed approaches to people with mental illness.’

Finally, Professor Rhona Johnston (University of Hull), becomes an MBE for services to education. Her research on reading and memory has led her to spearhead the ‘synthetic phonics’ approach in local schools.

The Psychologist extends its congratulations to all, and we hope to feature their work in more depth in the near future. cj & js  


Neuroscience and the law

The latest module in the ongoing Royal Society Brain Waves programme was published in December, focusing on the implications
of neuroscience findings for the law.

The 36-page document, which is freely available online (at tinyurl.com/brainwaves4), charts the rising influence of neuroscience evidence in courts of law. For example, of 722 US court cases in which neurological or behavioural genetics evidence was submitted in defence, 199 and 205 took place in 2008 and 2009, respectively, compared with 101 and 105 in 2005 and 2006.

Individual examples are highlighted in the report, including: a US man who developed paedophilia aftera tumour displaced his orbito-frontal cortex; a 60-year-old US defendant who submitted to three brain scans to prove his innocence in a fraud case (the scans were contradictory and were ruled as inadmissible); and an Italian case in which genetic evidence led to a reduced sentence for a murderer.

The Brain Waves report cautions that there are limits to what existing neuroscience technologies can achieve in a legal setting. For example, suspects can use countermeasures to distort brain-scan based lie-detection technologies, and genetic influences are rarely straightforward, often interacting with environmental factors. ‘[F]or the foreseeable future reliable fMRI lie detection is not a realistic prospect,’ the report says.

In other areas, emerging neuroscience findings will be highly relevant to legal practice, the report says. For example, research has shown how the frontal cortex, which is involved in judgement and self-control, is not fully matured until at least age 20, yet the criminal age of responsibility in England is 10 years. Pain research shows that the experience of pain often bears little or no relation to external tissue damage, yet many medical expert witnesses persist in seeing a direct relation. Neurology findings are continuing to clarify the signs of ‘shaken-baby syndrome’. Genetic tests and other neuroscience information could help improve the accuracy of risk assessments, alongside other relevant information. And the importance of psychology research for our understanding of eye-witness reliability is highlighted, including the widespread use of the ‘cognitive interview’, which was developed by psychologists.

The new report was chaired by Professor Emeritus of Experimental Psychology Nicholas Mackintosh at the University of Cambridge. He told us that the main recommendation of the report was that contacts between brain researchers (including neuroscientists, psychologists and behavioural geneticists) and lawyers should be strengthened. ‘Our experience when preparing our report was that many senior lawyers were well aware of the potential impact of neuroscience on the law, and saw the importance of such contacts,’ he said.

Specific recommendations in the report include: that a meeting should be held every three years for neuroscientists and legal experts to compare notes; that relevant elementary neuroscience tuition should be incorporated into legal training; that judges and lawyers should receive neuroscience training as part of their continuing professional development; and that more research is needed on ‘shaken-baby syndrome’, and ways to improve risk assessments. 

‘The MacArthur Foundation in the USA is funding research on “neurolaw”, and there are particular areas of research which could and should be funded in this country,’ Mackintosh told us, ‘for example on pain, non-accidental head injury in infants, and risk assessment.’

Professor Mackintosh wasn’t the only psychologist involved in the report. Professor Alan Baddeley (University of York), famed for his pioneering research into working memory, was a member of the module’s working group, and Professor Barry Everitt (University of Cambridge) was on the review panel for the module.The preceding Brain Waves module was on neuroscience and education, chaired by BPS Fellow, Professor Uta Frith of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL (see News, April 2011). The module ‘Neuroscience, conflict and security’ is delayed and will be published in due course. CJ
I    Access the latest and past Brain Waves reports at http://royalsociety.org/policy/projects/brain-waves


Dementia audit reveals shortcomings

The first-ever audit of dementia care in general hospitals in England and Wales has identified some serious problematic issues relating to mental health, assessment and ward culture. Conducted by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP), data was collected between 2010 and 2011 from 210 hospitals, with 55 of these providing ward-level assessments.

There was wide variation between hospitals in terms of their key standards and processes. Moreover, patient case notes showed that many hospitals’ own procedures and standards were often not subscribed to. For example, the percentage of patients whose mental state had been assessed was no different between hospitals that had an explicit policy on this assessment and those that didn’t. ‘The findings demonstrate a gap between policy and practice,’ the audit says.

Regarding mental health, 62 per cent of wards had no input from mental health practitioners or psychology services; 9 per cent had no psychiatric input either. Only 34 per cent of hospitals had protocols in place for the treatment and management of patients with behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia that could lead to ‘challenging behaviour’. A quarter of patients left hospital on anti-psychotic medication, yet the frequent lack of discharge notes on psychological function meant it was impossible to gauge the appropriateness of this medication.

Other issues identified included: a lack of information sharing with families (only 40 per cent of hospitals had an information sharing procedure in place); inadequate training (only 5 per cent of hospitals trained all staff in dementia awareness); and problems with the design and layout of wards (only 15 per cent of wards used colour schemes to help patients find their way around). Observation of ward culture found that much care was delivered in a task-focused, impersonal manner, rather than in the person-centred way that it should be. Clinical psychologist Professor Bob Woods at Bangor University (Co-Director of the Dementia Services Development Centre Wales and a member of the Medical & Scientific Advisory Panels of the Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Disease International) told us that this is the single biggest quality issue in relation to dementia care in the UK right now.

‘Clinical psychologists have a key role to play in training and supporting staff working in general hospital wards to adopt a culture of person-centred care,’ he said. ‘In Wales, following a similarly critical report from the Older People's Commissioner in 2010, this has become a priority for the NHS through our 1000 Lives plus quality improvement programme. Training initiatives are being launched across the country and wards being encouraged to regularly seek feedback from relatives of people with dementia.’

On a positive note, the RCP says many hospitals have already started addressing the problems identified in the audit after being provided with interim results. CJ

- The Report of the National Audit of Dementia Care in General Hospitals 2011 is at tinyurl.com/7maqucd

Boost for neurology research
The Wolfson Foundation has awarded  £20 million towards the establishment of a new Experimental Neurology Centre at UCL, to be based at the National Hospitalfor Neurology and Neurosurgery in Queen Square, London. The new Centre will focus on identifying treatments for neurodegenerative diseases and finding ways to implement them as early as possible in the disease process.

Benefits of birdsong
The psychological benefits of birdsong are to be investigated in a new three-year study launched by the University of Surrey, in collaboration with the National Trust and the Surrey Wildlife Trust. The research will be led by BPS member, PhD candidate Eleanor Ratcliffe. She said: ‘A great deal of anecdotal evidence suggests that we respond positively to birdsong. However, currently there is a lack of scientific research on the psychological effects of listening to birds.’

Experimental psychology society prize
Psychologist Dr Jon Simons, principal investigator in the Memory Laboratory at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Experimental Psychology, is the recipient of the 19th Experimental Psychology Society Prize. The Prize recognises outstanding research by early career experimental psychologists. Simons’ lab uses behavioural tasks, brain scanning and transcranial magnetic stimulation to investigate the processes involved in the strategic control of memory.

Researching the social brain
MIT in Boston is to establish the Simons Center for the Social Brain following a gift  of $26.5 million from the Simons Foundation – a charitable organisation based in New York City. The new Center will be led by Mriganka Sur, the Lilah and Paul E. Newton Professor of Neuroscience and head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. Gerald D. Fischbach, scientific director of the Simons Foundation, said: ‘The goal of the [new Center] is to understand the neural mechanisms underlying social cognition and behavior, and to translate this knowledge into better diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders.’ 

The polygraph on trial
Hertfordshire police have completed a trial using the polygraph test to assess the risk posed by men arrested for downloading indecent images of children. It’s the first time the polygraph – which measures physiological arousal – has been used in this way in the UK.

According to media reports, the pilot has been judged a success and the Association of Chief Police Officers has established a working group to advise other forces that may be interested in adopting the technology.

The news has provoked alarm in some quarters. Whilst the polygraph is used widely by police forces in the USA, its main use in the UK has been on daytime chat shows. In its 2004 working party review of the polygraph, the British Psychological Society stated: ‘…even in the most favourable circumstances polygraphic lie detection accuracy is not high’.

One of the contributors to the BPS polygraph review was Professor Aldert Vrij, a psychologist at the University of Portsmouth. He told us the accuracy of the polygraph depends on the exact type of test being deployed and that the tests used for assessing sex offenders are particularly inaccurate. This is because the offender is usually asked non-specific questions, such as ‘Have you done anything in the last few months that would concern me?’ Moreover, Vrij explained, when a suspect fails a non-specific incident test, it remains unclear precisely what wrongdoing they may have been involved in. Further interviews are required to find out.

‘Despite a wealth of information about how to interview suspects to elicit verbal cues to deceit, the police are currently not trained in such techniques in England and Wales,’ Professor Vrij said. ‘It would be better for the police to use their time and effort to train their officers in interview styles aimed at eliciting verbal cues to deceit rather than relying on atheoretical and inaccurate polygraph tests.’

The Hertfordshire polygraph trial is being led by Professor of Forensic Psychiatry Don Grubin at Newcastle University. He said the aim of the trial was to see if the polygraph could be used as an investigative aid, to confirm that low-risk internet offenders really are low risk, thus saving the police from engaging in unnecessary full forensic examinations of their computers.

The Psychologist asked Professor Grubin if he was concerned about the possibility of false confessions. He said that his research in the USA and Canada suggested that false confession rates are less than 5 per cent. ‘This suggests that while false confessions are a theoretical concern, in practice they are not a major issue, at least in post-conviction settings.’ He added that in the Hertfordshire trial, no action would be taken on a confession on its own, without further evidence to support it.

We also asked Professor Grubin if the polygraph examiners in the Hertfordshire trial were privy to background information on the offenders, since it’s known that such information can bias the interpretation of the polygraph recordings. ‘I’m not sure what you are getting at here,’ he said.

‘The aim is not to test the validity of polygraphy per se, but to determine the extent to which it can contribute to the investigation and management of internet offenders. It is a real-life, criminal investigation setting.’ CJ
-    The BPS working party review of the polygraph: tinyurl.com/77ur7wm

Depression on the rise…or is it?

There were widespread reports in December that antidepressant use in England has risen dramatically, with most news outlets linking the rise to the economic crisis. Data available from the NHS Information Centre show that prescriptions for antidepressant medication in England increased in the period 2010/11 by 28 per cent, relative to the period 2007/8 (43.4 million prescriptions vs. 34 million). ‘Antidepressant use in England soars,’ said The Guardian, ‘… amid fears that more people are suffering from depression due to the economic crisis.’

However, there was a backlash online as Ben Goldacre (tinyurl.com/7r5ga7g) and the Neuroskeptic blog (tinyurl.com/75ppher) separately pointed out the mistaken assumptions being propagated in the mainstream media. For example, there have been similar increases in antidepressant prescription rates in earlier periods, long before the start of the recession. Earlier research has also linked increased antidepressant prescriptions to the same number of patients taking the drugs for longer, rather than more people being given the drugs. Also, antidepressant medications are prescribed for many health problems besides depression, therefore making antidepressant use an unreliable measure of depression. On this point, the Neuroskeptic blog highlighted the fact that the second most commonly prescribed anti-depressant over the 2010/11 period was amitriptyline – a medicine often used as an analgesic.

There are also concerns in other parts of the world about the mental health effects of the economic crisis. For example, according to data released by the Greek health ministry, suicide rates for the country were 40 per cent higher between January and May 2011 compared with the same period in 2010. A preliminary Europe-wide analysis published in The Lancet last summer reported increases in suicide rates in 2008 and 2009 after the economic crisis caused increases in unemployment (tinyurl.com/4xcb83b). However the increases in suicidality were not uniform. For example, despite increased unemployment, Austria experienced a drop in suicide, perhaps, the authors reasoned, because of its ‘strong social safety net’. cj


FUNDING NEWS
As part of the ESRC e-Social Science programme to develop and promote the use of digital tools and techniques in social science research, funding is available for projects to broaden practice and support innovation in digital social research. Funding is available for ideas exchanges, training in social research tools and methods, and outreach events. Applications should be made as soon as possible as all projects supported by the scheme have to be completed by the end of August 2012.
tinyurl.com/3gwbpu6

Within the Teaching Development Grants offered by the Higher Education Academy, the Collaborative Grant scheme provides funding for cross-institution or interdisciplinary research into teaching and learning. Support of up to £60,000 per project is available for up to 18 months. Projects must be lead by a Fellow of the HEA. Closing date is 22 April.
www.heacademy.ac.uk/funding#tdg

The NIHR Public Health Research Programme has funding available to evaluate interventions that prevent or reduce risk taking behaviours in newly licensed drivers. Within the research alcohol as a risk factor should also be considered. Closing date for submissions is 23 April 2012.
tinyurl.com/38vv8h6

Wellcome Trust People Awards provide funding for events and activities that encourage people to explore, question and debate the impact of biomedical science on society. Up to £30,000 is available for projects lasting a maximum of three years. The next closing date for applications is 27 April 2012.
tinyurl.com/75xx7ls

The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) annual call for applications to its Collaborative Research Grants scheme is now open. The grants support international, interdisciplinary collaborations in pain research. Three grants of US$5000 are available to support travel and accommodation costs. The Principle Investigator in charge of the project must be a member of the IASP. The closing date for applications is 15 March 2012.
tinyurl.com/7p9pnya

For more, see www.bps.org.uk/funds
Funding bodies should e-mail news to Elizabeth Beech on [email protected] for possible inclusion

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