On the Emergence of Epiphenomena

Soren Louv-Jansen has created an application that can decide when one of his friends on Facebook is asleep, by monitoring their online posting activity. Apparently, for some of his friends, to be awake is to be on Facebook.

Given this, I have a weird question, but one with a reason behind it, an analogy with current neuroscience and the correlates of consciousness. What can Facebook posting activity tell us about the underlying neuroscience of sleep?

If an alien who knows nothing else of humanity was provided with a stream of the average voltage of the WiFi network signals emitted by a Facebook user, fopr example one of Soren's Facebook friends, which we know corresponds to their Facebook posting activity over time, what could the alien deduce about the poster's brain?

It's my opinion that the alien could decide if the friend's network voltages were rhythmic and might be able to deduce a pattern that matched the Earth's day-night cycle. The alien might be able to tell if the friend's network voltages were typical or atypical compared to a database of many others like him. But the alien might also conclude there was little difference between a human's measured activity and that of a plant, which would have different metabolic phases and thus emit somewhat different electrochemical activity from night to day.

So, what about consciousness seems missing from the averaged Wifi signal amplitudes? Almost everything!

The alien's Wifi voltage amplitudes can be seen as a low level phenomenon (voltage versus time) which is incidentally derived from a very high level phenomenon (Facebook posting by an intelligent person). The electrochemical properties of the human body contibute a lower level basis for high level cognition, which then influences the electrical properties of the Wifi network, which the aliens measure. Certainly the connection between thought and Wifi voltage is highly indirect. Is the connection between thought and fMRI signal really any better?

What we have here is the emergence of epiphenomena, which is analogous mathematically to a "forgetful functor": a process which has a transformed output which loses most of the structure and other information present in the input. Whether measuring BOLD fMRI or correlating evoked potentials, what we get is a limited proxy for the higher properties of consciousness.

Emergent epiphenomena, if used to sieve our data, can be useful when we know that the emergent epiphenomena can function as a reliable filter to remove extraneous higher order phenomena such as anomalous behaviors from our dataset. For example, EEG can usefully distinguish seizure from conversion disorder behaviors. But much of the published neuroscience of consciousness takes highly filtered epiphenomenal data and then tries to extrapolate lost phenomena from limited shadows of the real, higher order data. It's no wonder many such studies are not reproducible, since they measure mostly poor correlates of what they attempt to measure.

bioRxiv Preprint Review: Congenital Amusia May be an Autosomal-Dominantly-Inherited Trait

From the BioRxiv preprint server comes an interesting study of tone deafness, or amusia. The researchers found an incidence of about 1.5% in their French or English speaking population (with whatever biases accompany such surveys). They report a 46% concordance in first degree relatives, which fits autosomal dominant (with incomplete penetrance and/or reporting) inheritance pretty well and agrees with a prior Italian twin-based study. There are no DNA mapping or chromosomal site linkage studies as of yet, though.

The survey is still available online here (link), though it is no longer taking subjects.



Prevalence of Congenital Amusia

Isabelle Peretz, Dominique Vuvan

doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/070961


Congenital amusia (commonly known as tone-deafness) is a lifelong musical disorder that should affect 4% of the population according to a single estimate based on a single test from 1980. Here we present the first large-based measure of prevalence with a sample of 20,000 participants that does not rely on self-referral. On the basis of three objective tests and a questionnaire, we show that (a) the prevalence of congenital amusia is only 1.5% with slightly more females than males, unlike other developmental disorders where males often predominate; (b) self-disclosure is a reliable index of congenital amusia, that suggests that congenital amusia is hereditary with 46% first-degree relatives similarly affected; c) that the deficit is not attenuated by musical training and d) it emerges in relative isolation from other cognitive disorder except for spatial orientation problems. Hence, we suggest that congenital amusia is likely to result from genetic variations that affect musical abilities specifically.

Thymectomy Superior to Prednisone Treatment in Mild to Moderate Myasthenia Gravis

There has been controversy about how helpful thymectomy can be for this condition, but this trial provides high level confirmation that it is indeed helpful.



Randomized Trial of Thymectomy in Myasthenia Gravis

Gil I. Wolfe, M.D., Henry J. Kaminski, M.D., Inmaculada B. Aban, Ph.D., Greg Minisman, M.A., Hui-Chien Kuo, M.S., Alexander Marx, M.D., Philipp Ströbel, M.D., Claudio Mazia, M.D., Joel Oger, M.D., J. Gabriel Cea, M.D., Jeannine M. Heckmann, M.B., Ch.B., Ph.D., Amelia Evoli, M.D., Wilfred Nix, M.D., Emma Ciafaloni, M.D., Giovanni Antonini, M.D., Rawiphan Witoonpanich, M.D., John O. King, M.D., Said R. Beydoun, M.D., Colin H. Chalk, M.D., Alexandru C. Barboi, M.D., Anthony A. Amato, M.D., Aziz I. Shaibani, M.D., Bashar Katirji, M.D., Bryan R.F. Lecky, M.D., Camilla Buckley, M.D., Angela Vincent, M.B., B.S., Elza Dias-Tosta, M.D., Ph.D., Hiroaki Yoshikawa, M.D., Ph.D., Márcia Waddington-Cruz, M.D., Ph.D., Michael T. Pulley, M.D., Ph.D., Michael H. Rivner, M.D., Anna Kostera-Pruszczyk, M.D., Robert M. Pascuzzi, M.D., Carlayne E. Jackson, M.D., Guillermo S. Garcia Ramos, M.D., Jan J.G.M. Verschuuren, M.D., Janice M. Massey, M.D., John T. Kissel, M.D., Lineu C. Werneck, M.D., Ph.D., Michael Benatar, M.D., Ph.D., Richard J. Barohn, M.D., Rup Tandan, M.D., Tahseen Mozaffar, M.D., Robin Conwit, M.D., Joanne Odenkirchen, M.P.H., Joshua R. Sonett, M.D., Alfred Jaretzki, III, M.D., John Newsom-Davis, M.D., and Gary R. Cutter, Ph.D., for the MGTX Study Group

N Engl J Med 2016; 375:511-522August 11, 2016DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1602489


Thymectomy has been a mainstay in the treatment of myasthenia gravis, but there is no conclusive evidence of its benefit. We conducted a multicenter, randomized trial comparing thymectomy plus prednisone with prednisone alone.


We compared extended transsternal thymectomy plus alternate-day prednisone with alternate-day prednisone alone. Patients 18 to 65 years of age who had generalized nonthymomatous myasthenia gravis with a disease duration of less than 5 years were included if they had Myasthenia Gravis Foundation of America clinical class II to IV disease (on a scale from I to V, with higher classes indicating more severe disease) and elevated circulating concentrations of acetylcholine-receptor antibody. The primary outcomes were the time-weighted average Quantitative Myasthenia Gravis score (on a scale from 0 to 39, with higher scores indicating more severe disease) over a 3-year period, as assessed by means of blinded rating, and the time-weighted average required dose of prednisone over a 3-year period.


A total of 126 patients underwent randomization between 2006 and 2012 at 36 sites. Patients who underwent thymectomy had a lower time-weighted average Quantitative Myasthenia Gravis score over a 3-year period than those who received prednisone alone (6.15 vs. 8.99, P<0.001); patients in the thymectomy group also had a lower average requirement for alternate-day prednisone (44 mg vs. 60 mg, P<0.001). Fewer patients in the thymectomy group than in the prednisone-only group required immunosuppression with azathioprine (17% vs. 48%, P<0.001) or were hospitalized for exacerbations (9% vs. 37%, P<0.001). The number of patients with treatment-associated complications did not differ significantly between groups (P=0.73), but patients in the thymectomy group had fewer treatment-associated symptoms related to immunosuppressive medications (P<0.001) and lower distress levels related to symptoms (P=0.003).


Thymectomy improved clinical outcomes over a 3-year period in patients with nonthymomatous myasthenia gravis.

(Funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and others; MGTX ClinicalTrials.gov number, NCT00294658.)

Claws across the wolf's blood moon! My spotting telescope, Maryruth's iPhone 6+, and the neighbor's palm tree shadow, as seen ...