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Astronomy and Psychiatry: Brain Dust and Cosmic Dust

Reservations about radiologic visualizations of the brain

The big bang occurred about 13.8 billion years ago and many astronomers are engaged in understanding the history of the universe from that beginning to the present. The big bang was not actually a “bang” as we experience an explosion, but rather a sudden expansion of a dense amount of energy. About 380,000 years after the big bang, subatomic particles called photons became free and expanded in the universe. Our universe is filled with a relatively evenly distributed number of these photons. This photons form a phenomenon called Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), which was as discovered by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, earning them a Nobel prize in 1978.

CMB is ubiquitous and is now relatively easy to visualize and study. It has been speculated that gravity as a force was unleashed with the big bang. Further speculation suggested that gravitational waves made by the big bang might be identified by studying CMB. The gravitational waves that resulted from the big bang were speculated to be weak and immeasurable without highly sensitive instruments under perfect conditions. The gravitational waves were speculated to be the age of the big bang --13.8 billion years old. In an attempt to measure the gravitational waves that resulted from the big bang, a powerful telescope and observatory were set up near the South Pole under the leadership of two prominent international astronomers. In 2014 they reported gravitational waves in the CMB had been observed as had been predicted by many leading astronomers and Albert Einstein. Champagne was poured to jubilant scientists in observatories around the world. Regrettably, the finding was quickly found to be an observational error based on cosmic dust in our own milky way (1).

Although there is not “dust” in the brain, there are many obstacles to perceiving brain tissue clearly in living subjects. A frequently employed technique in contemporary psychiatric research is Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), a radiological technique for visualizing brain tissue. Results from these studies are published frequently in psychiatric journals, and the articles report findings such as cortical thinning and decreased brain volume among psychiatric patients. Often these articles compare patients to healthy controls.

In a recent review article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Daniel Weinberger, M.D. and Eugenia Radulescu, M.D. provide a well informed critique of this type of study (2). As discussed in this critique, MRI study findings are reported as if the investigators were observing the brain tissue itself. Instead investigators are observing the end product of a complicated, fragile physical process that is vulnerable to many confounding influences. The authors report,“MRI is not a direct measure of brain structure. MRI is a physical-chemical measure, based on radio-frequency signals emitted from energized hydrogen atoms influenced by the magnetic properties of the microenvironment of surrounding tissue.” P.28

Among the many confounds that obscure the findings of MRI research are alcohol use, marijuana use, psychotropic medication use, smoking, inability to hold the head still, and stress. When patient populations are compared to normal controls, patients will usually have more of the confounds than will controls. MRI studies often report results that measure changes based on the confounds rather than on the illness under study.

(A critique of two studies of MRI studies in bipolar children was made in this blog at -….)

The rapidity of the withdrawal of the believed astronomical observation of gravitational waves from the big bang was impressive compared with the persistence of reported findings of anatomical radiologic differences between patients and controls in the psychiatric literature. The reluctance of psychiatric investigators and psychiatric journals to withdraw articles with conclusions based on controversial technology serves to undermine the scientific credibility of psychiatry. Perhaps there is a stronger commitment to scientific verification in astronomy than in psychiatry that leads to a more rapid process of disconfirmation.


(1) Betz Eric, The race to cosmic dawn. Astronomy, March 2016 pp22-27.

(2)Weinberger, Daniel &Radulescu E. Finding the elusive psychiatric “lesion” with 21st-century neuroanatomy: a note of caution. Am. J. Psychiatry 173:1 January 2016.

Copyright: Stuart L. Kaplan, M.D., 2016.

Stuart L. Kaplan, M.D., is the author of Your Child Does Not Have Bipolar Disorder: How Bad Science and Good Public Relations Created the Diagnosis. Available at

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